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Al Christiansen, a machinist at Diversified Plastics, a Missoula manufacturing company, cleans up his work area in 2016. Facing a shortage of skilled workers in the job pool, Diversified gave all of its employees a 17 percent pay raise in 2014 to help attract workers and keep the turnover low.

A survey of 410 workers in Missoula and another 690 in Kalispell and Bozeman showed that job seekers view a good “work environment” as even a higher priority than their wage. They also want to be challenged at work, have flexible schedules and to feel their work has meaning.

That’s according to LC Staffing, a local company that is trying to help employers attract and retain workers as the state experiences a historically low unemployment rate.

“This is relevant because job satisfaction and engagement are key to retention, and an engaged culture increases productivity in today’s age,” said Kristen Heck, president and owner of LC Staffing. “Employers may need to adapt to more flexibility in work schedules and environments. These are key reasons for why people will stay, because so many businesses are not currently offering this.”

Missoula County’s unemployment rate is 2.8 percent, even lower than the statewide average of 3.7 percent. That means workers have more choices than usual, and companies are having to get creative beyond just increasing their wages to attract and retain talent.

The survey showed that while 25 percent declared that wage was one of their main considerations when looking for a job, a startling 35 percent said “work environment” was a more important factor.

“In recruitment, a competitive wage will always be a key factor," Heck said. "Our recent data shows that the Flathead Valley employers who are filling job openings are starting new hires around $12.50 per hour or more. That said, our recent survey also clearly shows that many Montana job seekers recognize huge value in employer offerings that cannot be quantified with a dollar sign.”

Along with wage and environment, “meaningful work” made the list with 21 percent of respondents, followed by “work schedule” and “benefits.” Many respondents said it was a combination of factors, like “wage, schedule flexibility” and “continual learning and being challenged.”

The survey also gauged job seekers’ key factors for staying in a current job compared to what would make them want to leave. According to Heck, she was surprised to see that only 10 percent of participants declared that wages motivated them to seek work elsewhere. Also, 13 percent said a “better work opportunity” contributed to their decision to leave their last job. A “conflict with management” was a deciding factor for 11 percent.

“Employers have an opportunity in this environment to consider how they will allow their employees to get the work done,” Heck explained. “It’s not always about people in seats, but outcomes. When employees are fully engaged, they’re happy and feel supported. When their work style fits their lifestyle they’re not going to be shopping around for a different opportunity.”

Of the 1,000 job seekers surveyed by LC Staffing, 42 percent of respondents reside in the Flathead Valley, 41 percent in Missoula, and 17 percent in Bozeman. Surveys were distributed, and responses collected through an online survey platform.

According to Barb Wagner, the chief economist for the Montana Department of Labor, the state expects unemployment levels of around 2 percent for the next decade if trends continue. Under those conditions, workers can expect fast-growing wages and more opportunities for career growth, while businesses will have to spend a greater share of resources on recruitment, retention and on-the-job training.

“We’ve been talking about Montana’s worker shortage for the last 10 years or more,” Wagner told the Missoulian earlier this year. “That is certainly something that is a concern for the Montana economy, not just in terms of the availability of workers but in terms of passing on intergenerational knowledge to younger workers.”

Over the next 10 years, Montana is expected to add about 4,500 workers a year, but that’s not enough to cover the 5,500 new jobs that are projected to be added every year if the robust economy persists.

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