Michael FitzGerald, left, a co-founder of tech company Submittable, explains his company's cloud-based digital content platform to a group of Lolo Middle School students in 2017 in Missoula. The students toured tech companies to learn about jobs in the field through ChickTech Missoula, which tries to expose kids, and especially girls, to possible careers.

The days following Labor Day last week brought a renewed focus on Montana’s current economic strengths and challenges, accented by a slew of new statistics detailing the shifting state of the labor market. If current trends hold up, Montanans can expect to see our most rural counties continue to empty out as workers flock to the state’s urban centers.

Missoula is in a key position, both geographically and through strategic planning, to take advantage of these trends. Indeed, official statistics hint that relatively recent efforts to boost the local economy by bolstering new and growing businesses and incentivizing more high-paying jobs are paying off.

Over the past year, Missoula County employers created more jobs than any other county in the state — topping Yellowstone County, which has more than 40,000 more residents, and more than Gallatin County, where Bozeman’s recent population growth is not just among the fastest in Montana, but in the nation.

According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, Missoula County has added 1,720 more jobs since July 2018. According to the Missoula Economic Partnership, growth has been strong across nearly every industry, but particularly in health care and social services, construction, retail, technical services and manufacturing. Missoula’s burgeoning high-tech sector should not be overlooked, either.

Here’s just a sample of some of the expansions that have taken place over the past year:

  • Submittable, which offers a platform for submissions and applications, successfully raised $10 million in venture capital investment through one of the largest Series B investment rounds in Montana’s history. It plans to add some 150 jobs in Missoula by the end of 2020.
  • OnX maps, a company that started in Missoula offering GPS mapping tools, secured more than $20 million in venture capital investment last year. It opened a second office in Bozeman and planned to add at least 30 more positions to its 70-employee payroll.
  • Less than a year after establishing an office in Missoula, ClassPass, a company that helps with fitness schedules, marked its 100th local hire as it prepared to move into a larger space downtown with room for up to 175 employees.
  • Last November, Consumer Direct learned that it will receive state grants to create a total of 37 new jobs over the next two years and train 11 new employees.
  • And LumenAd, which coordinates media campaign management, planned to add 26 new jobs to its office in downtown Missoula.

Some of these companies got a helping hand from the Missoula Economic Partnership in securing Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grants. The money comes from coal severances taxes and is distributed through the Montana Department of Commerce and Missoula County. It can only be used for jobs that pay at least $18.99 an hour — well above Missoula’s median hourly wage of $15.10.

Earlier this year, MEP grants manager Nicole Rush reported that Missoula companies had received a total $3.7 million in grant support. “Since 2013 we’ve helped 24 companies create 532 jobs,” Rush said in May. Those jobs added more than $20 million in average annual collective wages in Missoula.

Additionally, a number of local businesses have taken advantage of existing opportunities to form innovative new partnerships.

Consider, for just one admirable example, Missoula tech company ATG Cognizant’s recent cooperation with the University of Montana to offer a three-month training program for 26 students, all of whom were hired by the company upon graduation from the program.

In March, ATG Cognizant asked for $75,000 in Big Sky Trust Fund money to partially reimburse the company for creating jobs. The growing company now counts 176 employees in Montana, the vast majority of them UM graduates.

It makes good sense to augment educational and training opportunities geared to young adults just entering the work force and mid-career workers looking to move to higher-paying positions, especially as the nation’s aging population leads to more retirements and a shrinking labor pool. 

According to the annual Labor Day report released last week, more than 20% of the state’s workforce is expected retire over the next decade, which is why the report listed an aging population and a tight labor market as central issues. In Montana, nearly 19% of the population is older than 65.  In Missoula County, however, just 15.6% of residents are 65 or older. 

As noted in the Labor Report, higher education will play an increasingly critical role in preparing the workforce for the emerging demands of the future. Missoula’s business leaders and education experts should be encouraged to form partnerships that will help position workers of all ages for stable careers with good-paying wages.

This should include, of course, encouragement for entrepreneurs and innovators who want to start new businesses; Montana has the highest percentage of residents who own their own business, at more than 10%, and ranks ninth in the nation for its business survival rate. A variety of support is available at the state and local levels to help support new startups, and the Labor Day report mentions one initiative, the Incumbent Worker program, that offers subsidies to small business owners that invest in workforce training. 

Additionally, as highlighted during last week's Last Best Outdoors Fest, industries related to Montana's outdoors bring $7.1 billion in consumer spending each year and support 71,000 jobs in the state. Missoula is surrounded by world-class outdoor treasures of every kind, and it's in our best interests to protect these natural riches not just as a smart financial investment, but to preserve an exceptional quality of life as well. 

While cost-of-living and housing challenges persist, it appears Missoula is on the right economic track. Let’s all do our part to maintain the momentum.

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