A jobs report released Tuesday by the state’s Department Labor and Industry gives a glowing picture of Montana's current job market, but predicts a worker shortage in the next decade.
Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Pam Bucy handed the 2016 Labor Day report to Governor Steve Bullock during a press conference hosted by a financial company in Helena.
Bucy said the state had exceptional growth last year, despite natural resource sectors being hit by lower commodity prices.
“This year’s Labor Day Report has good news throughout that highlights the strength of our economy, in part due to the diversification of our state’s industries. In the last year Montana has added thousands of new workers, which is helping businesses grow and expand.”
Bucy says that wage growth in the state is moving in the right direction, and wages increased across the state by over 3 percent last year. She also said the state’s unemployment rate of 4.2 percent is better than the national average.
According to the labor report, Montana’s unemployment rate is expected to continue declining over the next decade, and that should lead to an increase workers’ pay and benefits.
“It is a good time to be a part of our state’s labor force.”
Democratic Governor Steve Bullock continued on in much the same tone when he took the podium. After praising Montanans for their hard work, Bullock said that there is still work to do preparing for the state’s retiring baby-boomer population.
“We have an aging workforce. Montana businesses are going to be looking for workers that have the skills, knowledge and training to fill good-paying, in-demand jobs. That presents us with, ultimately, an opportunity. An opportunity to invest in Montana workers.”
What the Labor Day Report calls a "looming worker shortage" is expected to result in unemployment rates around 2 percent, potentially slowing job growth.
The labor report proposes several solutions to the pending shortage: bring in more out-of-state workers to Montana, increase the number of Montanans who work full-time, and increase worker training and education.
Bullock says he has already started to invest in training programs through his office’s Montana Main Street program.
In his opening remarks on the labor report, and without being promoted by reporters, Bullock mentioned the context of the labor report’s release just months before Election Day.
“We also know there are folks out there who will try to twist and turn economic statistics for their own personal benefit. To pick and choose talking points in order to tear Montana’s progress down.”
Bullock’s challenger in this year’s gubernatorial race, Republican Greg Gianforte, has made the state’s economy and job market — and specifically low wages — key issues for his campaign.
Gianforte campaign spokesperson Aaron Flint called the labor report numbers out-of-date and says Montana’s economy is not as rosy as Bullock paints it.
“He’s using numbers from 2015 when the numbers in 2016 say we have had two consecutive quarters of decline in our GDP. I mean you just can’t spin any faster than this.”
According to a report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Montana’s gross domestic product declined by about 1 percent in the final quarter of 2015 and the first three months of 2016.
Flint also attacked Bullock over the state’s low average wage.
“It comes down to what you are bringing home in wages. And we are 49th in the country in wages, and that is what matters to the average Montanan.”
Greg Gianforte regularly uses the 49th in wages ranking during his campaign stumps, but critics have called the relevance of that number into question.
Montana State University Political Science Professor David Parker wrote on his blog that a significant number of Montanans, including farmers and ranchers, don’t earn “wages” per se, but can still have healthy incomes. Parker says he’s “skeptical” about low wage claims by candidates.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry report released yesterday says Montana now ranks 45th among states in hourly wages.
Read the State of Montana Labor Day Report in full here.