Unemployment rate

Missoula County’s unemployment rate jumped from 3.7 percent in January to 4.1 percent in February, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

That’s .5 percent lower than last year. However, Missoula has actually lost a net total of two jobs from this time last year, for a total of 58,685.

The fastest-growing county in the state, Gallatin County, has posted an increase of 2,467 jobs since last year for a total of 60,784. Flathead County added 736 jobs but has an unemployment rate of 6.4 percent and Ravalli County added 206 jobs but has an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent.

The state’s overall unemployment rate continued its downward trend, dropping .1 percentage point to 3.8 percent in February. That’s lower than the national average of 4.7 percent.

Barbara Wagner, the chief economist with the Department of Labor, said Missoula’s unemployment rate is actually closer to where economists want to see it for a healthy economy.

“The normal unemployment rate levels that we typically want to see is between 4 and 4.5 percent,” Wagner said. “So (Montana overall) is slightly below that level.”

When the unemployment rate is below 4 percent, it is an indication of a workforce shortage.

“We’ve been talking about a worker shortage for some time now,” Wagner said. “We are expecting the unemployment rate to continue to go lower as we have more and more people retire out of the workforce. On the other hand, workers will see benefits such as higher wage growth and more job opportunities, so it’s good news from a worker’s perspective.”

Wagner said Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration is focused on implementing apprenticeship programs, and streamlining education and training systems to ensure that workers are being trained for the right jobs – where there is the most demand – and getting the right skills.

Missoula has not had any significant gains in the number of jobs created over the past year, Wagner said. However, she said that could be attributed to a large margin of error in the data sets that the state gets from counties.

“Some other data sources suggest that northwest Montana and Missoula added a lot of jobs,” Wagner said. “There are fairly large error ranges on the county level. If I start to see a downward trend in more than one data series, then we can say that there is a problem.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has revised estimates that indicate the southwest region of the state – including Bozeman, Butte and Helena – had the fastest growth in 2016, adding roughly 3,900 jobs over the year for 2.7 percent growth.

Northwest Montana, including Kalispell and Missoula, added roughly 3,300 jobs for a growth rate of 2.3 percent. The central regions of the state posted only modest gains, and eastern Montana experienced job losses over the year, although the rate of job loss appears to be slowing in recent months.

Payroll employment in Montana increased by 3,000 jobs from January to February, with the private sector adding 2,800 jobs. The construction, retail trade and leisure activities industries saw the most sizeable job gains.

“Montana’s economy is off to a hot start in 2017, with thousands of new jobs added just last month,” said Bullock in a statement. “More Montanans are at work than ever before in our state’s history and Montana businesses are creating good-paying jobs being filled by our friends, families, and neighbors.”

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers increased 0.1 percent in February. Gasoline prices increased sharply in January, but declined by 3 percent in February. The index for all items besides food and energy, called core inflation, rose .2 percent in February.

The unemployment figures for the state are seasonally adjusted, which means they take into account the effect of events that follow a more or less regular month-to-month pattern each year. However, the county-level unemployment rates are not seasonally adjusted.

“A lot of (Missoula’s increase in unemployment from January to February) could be seasonality,” Wagner said. “There can be weird changes. The winter months are the time of the lowest employment in Montana. There’s a lot more employment in the summer months, even with the holiday hiring.”

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