Montana's businesses and employers will struggle to fill positions as the so-called “Baby Boomer” generation slowly ages out of the workforce while young people move away for better-paying jobs and lower housing prices, according to an economic update presented Thursday in Missoula.
That’ll be a drag on the economy and will decrease the state’s tax revenue for solving societal problems, said economist Patrick Barkey with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.
Montana has the oldest population of any western U.S. state, with a median age of almost 40 in 2017, said Barkey, who spoke Thursday in Missoula as part of the Bureau’s 14th Annual Economic Update Series in partnership with the Montana Chamber Foundation.
Barkey said that nationally, the U.S. economy is in a record expansion, although the current Republican administration's policies have created huge budget deficits.
He said investment spending has lagged, as has manufacturing growth, housing construction and trade. However, consumer spending is strong, as is the services economy. Barkey said there are very real trade imbalances between the U.S. and China, but he said he and other economists don't believe President Donald Trump's tariffs are the right solution.
"Very few of my ilk are fans of tariffs," he said. "They have a bad track record. Just look at the history of the Great Depression. They're blunt and not a good solution but they are trying to solve a problem, and the problem is real."
In general, Barkey said growth in non-farm earnings in Montana is projected to fall from 2019-2022.
"Our forecast continues to be a slowdown in the Montana economy consistent with what we expect in the U.S. economy," he said.
Barkey calls Montana’s aging workforce a “silver tsunami.”
“The wave is getting older,” he said. “And we’re not just aging but we’re changing. We have people moving here and moving away and migration is the big wild card with respect to the age distribution of the population.”
The median age in Missoula County is 35.4, but in rural counties the median age is as high as 50 and over.
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Across the U.S., people are moving away from the largest cities and moving toward communities with at least a population of 50,000 or more, he explained. Migration to communities with fewer than 50,000 people is not happening, which means many rural Montana towns are struggling to retain population. While Montana’s urban counties like Missoula County are doing relatively well economically, rural counties are only keeping pace because of energy production near eastern Montana.
“The labor force challenges are likely to persist or worsen in the coming years,” he said. “One solution is where we turn down business or don’t expand or invest someplace else because we don’t think we can get the workers. That reduces growth prospects and reduces the capacity of the economy and society to solve our problems.”
Wayne Gardella, the Montana district director for the U.S. Small Business Administration, told the Missoulian last year that as many as 10,000 jobs could disappear in rural Montana because business owners have nobody to pass their work on to as young people move away.
One solution is to make child care more affordable and accessible so that more women can participate more in the workforce, he said.
Dylan Rogness, the director of work-based learning and engagement for Missoula College, said apprenticeship development is another resource in the toolbox to solve the issue.
He said that historically, trades like plumbing, carpentry and electrician work were the only places where apprenticeships were thriving because they had such a workforce shortage in those industries.
“Now other Montana industries are having the same problems as the trades,” he said. He recently helped facilitate tech-based internships at Blackfoot Communications in Missoula, for example. Students at Missoula College are guaranteed 2,000 hours while working at Blackfoot, including full-time summer employment. They are exposed to the company culture, which Rogness said is important because by the time they graduate they’ll be ready for a full-time job at the company, with a career path in place.
More and more employers are coming to Missoula College, Rogness said, and telling them what they need in graduates rather than the other way around.
“Historically, you have higher education going to private industry and saying here are the graduates we’re producing and if you don’t like them, tough, they’ll find work elsewhere,” Rogness said. “But now we’ve got private industry coming up with solutions and coming to the table rather than staying isolated.”
“Workforce development is a major issue for business in every sector,” said Todd O’Hair, executive director of the Montana Chamber Foundation. “As Montana’s population ages, the strains on our labor pool will be felt even more. The Montana Chamber and Montana Chamber Foundation are prepared to lead the business community in identifying specific solutions to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow."