With little reliance on high-tech, state economy has held its own

HELENA - Although Montanans hungry for economic growth have lamented the lack of manufacturing and high-tech industry, that absence has protected the state from feeling the full brunt of the national slowdown, a leading economist said last week.

Heavy manufacturing - especially transportation - and high-tech companies have been hit hardest by the U.S. economic downturn of the past year.

But Montana has little dependence on such businesses, said Paul Polzin, director for the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

"Montana is not experiencing some of the bad effects of the (national) downturn," he said.

"It turns out to be good news that we don't have dot-com companies because they are the ones suffering most," Polzin added. "The structure of the Montana economy is working in our favor. It will make the downturn milder here than elsewhere."

The latest monthly report from the state Department of Labor and Industry shows an economy that has largely held its own over the past year.

Unemployment dipped to 4.7 percent in April, the lowest for that month since 1973, the agency said.

Job growth hovered at 1.6 percent over the past year, a slower pace than a year ago, but not surprising in light of the slowing economy across the country, Polzin said.

Average weekly earnings of Montanans increased by 3 percent from a year ago, nearly matching the 3.3 percent rise in the cost of living during that time, according to the labor report.

The weekly pay for a typical nonsupervisory worker last month was $389.76 due to a 35-cent increase from April 2000.

The 1.6 percent rate of job growth amounted to an increase of 6,300 jobs, with about two-thirds of them in service businesses.

The increase occurred despite losses in manufacturing, communication, utility, wholesale trade and federal government jobs from last April.

The decrease of 900 federal government jobs was caused by census workers no longer on the payroll.

Another 200 jobs were lost mostly in utility businesses, such as electric, gas and garbage. Manufacturing jobs dropped by about 600, and Polzin attributed more than half that number to layoffs at Jore Corp., the financially struggling power-tool accessory maker in Ronan.

The unemployment rate of 4.7 percent means 22,100 Montanans were out of work last month, about 1,500 fewer than in April last year.

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