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Montana Facing A Shortage Of Skilled Workers

File photo. Montana's construction industry needs skilled labor and is going out of its way to get it.
File photo. Montana's construction industry needs skilled labor and is going out of its way to get it.

There's a labor shortage in Montana, just ask Bill Fritz.

"If you aren’t working right now, it’s your own fault. Everybody who says they don’t have a job – if you go out and get some training you can pretty much write your own ticket.”

Fritz runs a construction crew for the Missoula-based Jackson Contractor Group. Today they're continuing the finishing work on the skeleton-superstructure of the University of Montana’s new Missoula College on East Broadway.

”Just about finished up and we’ll start on the finishes, putting walls and everything in later this month and continue through the winter. Hopefully we’ll get closed in before the snow flies.”

Fritz has been in the business 25 years. He says that for every four retiring tradespeople only one newcomer is  being recruited into the business.

"We can definitely see it with our subcontractors. They just flat-out don’t have the people to put the work in place at the schedule we’d like to see them put it in.”

The predicted - and existing - labor shortage presents a major problem for the nation’s construction industry, according to Cary Hegreberg of the Montana Contractors Association.

"Five, six years ago the biggest problem facing our industry was lack of work. Suddenly the economy turned around and our companies started trying to hire back employees and found there was a scarcity of construction workers.”

Not just construction workers, but diesel mechanics, plumbers, electricians, welders, and heavy equipment operators. Hegreberg says the trades are, or will soon be, starved for skilled workers. Some Montana tradespeople moved during the recession to find steady work elsewhere. Others retired.  Many just opted to leave the industry altogether when the economy tanked. The repercussions are still being felt, even, according to Jackson’s Bill Fritz,  on the Missoula College construction site; the very institution that will train the next generation of tradespeople.

"So trying to entice people into the trades and get the skills – it is a skilled profession  -  it’s been hard trying to lure people into this business, or even just letting them know that there is this opportunity out there right now.”

He says there’s long been a social stigma against so-called “blue collar” jobs.

"Oh definitely. There’s been (this view) that if you didn’t get your 4-year degree or you’re not sitting behind a computer then you’ve essentially given up. The facts are, the money’s there and it takes a high level of skill. We’re not just able to take anybody. We need skilled professional to do this.”

The Montana Contractors Association’s Cary Hegreberg says this is a problem that’s been decades in the making. He thinks high school students have had it pounded in their heads that the only way to have a  successful career is to attend a traditional 4-year college and then perhaps move on to graduate school.
But he says anyone with a good work ethic who’s willing to learn the necessary technical skills can earn a very comfortable living.

"I ran into a young guy the other day who runs an asphalt hot plant for one of our member companies. He started as a laborer, essentially running  a shovel. He’s now in charge of their $4 million hot plant which is very technologically oriented. He probably makes $60,000 to $70,000 a year."

The industry is wasting no time in raising awareness about the need for skilled labor. The Jackson Contractor Group invites each Missoula-area high school to nominate a student to work for the company for the summer between their junior and senior years.  Those students not only get real-world experience, but credit towards their apprenticeship.

The Montana Contractors Association has launched TV and radio spots as well as a slick new website to help people learn more about opportunities in the trades.

The industry needs skilled labor and is going out of its way to get it.

Montana Labor Commissioner Pam Bucy is aware of the problem and offers this sobering assessment.

”We have about 130,000 baby boomers that are going to retire in the next 8 to 10 years and we have about 123,000 16 to 24-year olds to fill those slots. No matter how you look at it, the math just doesn’t work.”

Bucy adds that  the shortage is even more complicated than it first appears.

"Because we would need those kids to not go to college, not take any time out of the workforce and step right in, which isn’t realistic. In addition, it just doesn’t account for the 6,500 jobs a year we anticipate our economy to grow in the next decade.”

Construction is hardly the only industry feeling the pinch of the constrained labor market. The medical, engineering, manufacturing and information technology-sectors are all dealing with the same problem.

We’ll soon tell you how local schools and the state are joining forces to overhaul Montana’s career training programs to prepare people to join the rapidly shrinking workforce.

Opportunity, it seems, is in the air.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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