You can’t just show up for work at NorthWestern Energy and head out to repair power lines or natural gas pipes on the first day on the job. It takes years of experience, and that’s why the utility has a five-year apprenticeship program. However, as baby boomers within the company begin to retire, the company is facing a shortage of veteran workers.

“Where we are challenged and going to be over the next several years is we are losing a huge number of folks to retirement,” said Steve Clawson, community relations manager for the company. “We have a lot of expertise walking out the door. How do you replace 40 years of experience with somebody brand-new? And safety is a big part of that.”

NorthWestern is not alone with the problem. Barb Wagner, the chief economist with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, has estimated that the state will lose 120,000 baby boomers to retirement over the next decade, while only between 80,000 and 90,000 young people will be entering the workforce in that same time period.

An aging labor pool was just one of the issues discussed at a business roundtable featuring the Montana Chamber of Commerce, local business leaders and hosted by the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce this week.

Kim Latrielle, the CEO and president of the Missoula Chamber, said she’s hearing employers are starting to offer longtime employees a reduced schedule, with paid benefits, in an effort to entice them to stick around longer to train younger workers.

“Employers are starting to think outside the box,” she said. “And that can save them money in the long term.”

Clawson said that NorthWestern sometimes brings veteran employees back on a contract basis when they're needed. NorthWestern definitely doesn't have a problem attracting new workers, because their lineman jobs pay very well and come with a good benefits package.

“We are sometimes getting 130 applications for every job,” he said. “We don’t even advertise really. We just post them. So we are not struggling with applications. But how do we replace expertise?”

Officials from the Montana Chamber are on a statewide tour to promote “Envision 2026,” a series of initiatives designed to improve the business climate in Montana and improve the economy.

Webb Brown, the CEO and president of the Montana Chamber, said the Chamber is committed to working with the state Legislature on reducing the cost of doing business, promoting workforce development, investing in infrastructure and eliminate barriers to entrepreneurial growth.

Montana ranks fourth in the nation for its rate of new startup businesses, or entrepreneurial activity, but only ranks 41st in the nation in the amount of venture capital invested in local startups at $5.49 per capita.

Bridger Mahlum, the Montana Chamber’s government relations director, said at Tuesday's meeting that he tried to get enough legislators to vote for an “angel investor tax credit” but it didn’t get enough votes to pass.

He did say that the Chamber considers it an enormous success that a gas tax to fund infrastructure improvements was passed with bipartisan support. Many Republicans, who are usually opposed to new tax increases, supported the gas tax that will eventually add 6.5 cents to every gallon. Since it took effect in July, the gas tax has added 4.5 cents to every gallon.

“We were not interested in a new tax that gets funneled into the general fund,” Mahlum said. “But we were interested in seeing dedicated revenues going to dedicated projects of critical need. We want to see dollars going into something that’s going to make a difference tomorrow.”

He also said that the Legislature revised several of the state’s interest and penalty laws for civil and tax cases.

In the coming years, the Chamber will be focused on trying to get tax reform passed, including tax simplification and reducing the business equipment tax. Increasing workplace safety — a moved aimed at reducing workers’ compensation insurance costs — is also a high priority.

“We are focused on what’s going to have a measurable impact,” Brown concluded.

For more information visit montanachamber.com/envision-2026/.

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