Colton Baquet was tired of landscaping and fed up with coming home at night exhausted, while still not getting enough in his paycheck to make up for it. Now, because of low unemployment in Montana that makes skilled workers a hot commodity, employers are licking their chops to hire people like him and pay him a good wage.
“My girlfriend has been out of pharmacy school for a while, she’s making good money,” he said. “We’re still stuck in a pretty poor house, I’ll put it that way. I’m ready to get to work. I’m ready to start life. I woke up one morning and thought that I need to go back to school.”
So he got his associate's degree and tried a few different programs before he enrolled in the machinist technology program at Missoula College’s west campus. On Wednesday, he checked out the University of Montana’s Industrial Technology Career Fair, where employers from all over the region came to entice soon-to-be graduates like Baquet.
He spent most of the morning talking to Ken Johnson, the President of CM Manufacturing Inc. in Missoula. The company employs 27 people and supplies parts to the U.S. military.
“We make critical safety landing gear components that are used in all fixed-wing aircraft for the Department of Defense, so every fixed-wing aircraft that’s flown, these parts are made in Missoula, Montana,” Johnson said. “If these parts fail, then you’ve basically got a loss of aircraft. We make a part for the F-15 and the B-2. If a part fails, then you’ve got a $500 million aircraft potentially being destroyed, so quality is an important part of what we do.”
Baquet and Johnson chatted about the finer points of machining parts for aircraft, and Johnson told him that machinists at the company start out at $15-$20 per hour, depending on experience. Johnson said a lot of manufacturing companies are having trouble finding enough skilled workers.
“Everybody here in Missoula who hires the skilled trades is having a hard time,” he said. “Missoula in general has a shortage of labor. Just ask any employers out there, with the growth in Missoula. What used to be a $9-per-hour job is now a $12-per-hour job. Which is great, but the downturn of 2008 to 2009, that was great for employers. Now it’s great for employees. So now look at the fast food industry. Those places were paying $8 or $9 per hour are now paying $11 or $12 per hour. I mean, that’s the reality of it.”
In fact, Johnson said his company donated $70,000 worth of equipment to Missoula College to help ensure students get the training they need to enter the workforce.
“We did that because in my opinion the Board of Regents don’t get how important funding is to this college,” he said. “I believe they need to start looking at how they can incorporate technical schools into the four-year degrees. In the last week, I’ve had six or seven people apply for a $12-an-hour job and they’ve got four-year degrees. So why are you going to school for four years and spending $60,000 to $80,000 and then applying for a $12-an-hour job?"
Johnson said more and more people realize they can get an associate's degree or technical training for a fraction of the cost and still get the same pay when they enter the workforce.
"The four-year degree they got it, they need a master’s or they need something else for that job they’re in," he said. "And why is UM down 5,000 students? Because people are realizing how expensive college is. Are they willing to pay that kind of money for a liberal arts degree?”
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Another company that showed up was Montana Precision Products, based in Butte. The company employs 130 people, making it one of the largest employers in Butte, and produces parts that are used in Boeing 777 aircraft engines, among other things. Their main customer is General Electric, and they produce tube and duct assemblies and small structural castings for commercial and aerospace applications. The company is actually a joint venture between GE Aviation and SeaCast, Inc., an investment company owned by two Butte brothers.
Mary Mazzolini, a human resources assistant with the company, said they are always looking for good TIG (tungsten inert gas) welders.
“We’re always looking for TIG welders,” Mazzolini said. “So that’s why we’re here is to recruit TIG welders. Entry level is $14 an hour, and as soon as they’re certified, which sometimes takes three months, they move up to $15. We also have a second shift which pays a dollar more. And they obviously can move up from Welder 1 to Welder 2. We are looking to hire as many as we can find.”
Mazzolini said students from Missoula College might find that, although they have to leave Missoula, they can get a good-paying entry-level job just 90 minutes away.
“It’s a challenge, but we’re not that far away,” she said. “And the cost of living is a little cheaper, I believe.”
The welders at Montana Precision Products can also work four 10-hour shifts in a week, giving them a long weekend. Jeanne Nelson Kruse, the company’s human resources leader, said they offer a 401(k) program with a company match, as well as paid holidays, medical and dental insurance and paid time off.
“There’s a lot of growth potential there, for Butte and for the employees,” Mazzolini said.
For students like Baquet, the career fair was a look at a brighter future.
"At this point, it kind of comes down to I'm not going to compromise on a job anymore," he said. "If it doesn't work out, tough luck this time and I'll try again. If I need more education I'll get more education."