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Flipping for dollars

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The time-honored tradition of teens flipping burgers at their local fast-food joints for minimum wage has taken a lucrative turn in the Flathead Valley.

Last month, Scott Hadwin, the local owner of four Flathead Valley McDonald’s restaurants, put a new “pay matrix” in place that starts employees at $6.75 per hour and makes them eligible for raises to $10 per hour within as little as a year, if certain managerial training programs are completed.

That’s well above the $5.15 minimum wage, and a sign of an unusual job market in the Flathead.

According to Hadwin, the wages offered at his stores are “not typical” for McDonald’s, but, he says, “We’re fighting the same thing everybody here’s fighting. We’ve been having a hard time getting employees.”

According to Virginia Sloan, a business advocate for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Services office in Kalispell, Hadwin’s McDonald’s restaurants aren’t the only businesses in the valley that have had to increase wages to stay competitive.

“Everybody has had to raise the bar,” she says, “across all industries.”

Sloan notes that the unemployment rate in Flathead County currently stands at 3.6 percent, well below the national average of 5.1 percent and slightly better than the statewide average of 3.8.

Low unemployment, she says, is caused by an influx of new local industries, such as TeleTech, which hired 200 employees within its first two months of business last year, and the valley’s construction of the last few years.

Two years ago, the unemployment rate in the Flathead Valley, and most of Montana, was 6.4 percent. In those days, it was an employer’s market.

“It’s sort of a new dilemma for us,” Sloan says.

Right now, she continues, it’s employees who hold the upper hand. Job Services currently has a record high 523 job orders from employers looking to hire.

Sloan believes that low unemployment in the Flathead and the presence of more jobs to fill have spurred the trend toward higher wages.

But Scott Hadwin thinks the job market will come into equilibrium as the population of the valley increases.

“We’ve got the jobs, now we need people,” Hadwin says.

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