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State, and legislators, search for solutions to Montana's looming labor shortage

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Back during the height of the recession, when the timber industry was weathering the same storm of tumbling revenues and pink slips that plagued so many other Montana industries, the state's Department of Labor and Industry made a strange connection. Tasked with helping out-of-work timber workers, the department began to steer them toward one of Montana's fastest-growing occupations: nursing. It may sound odd, chief economist Barbara Wagner says, but the two occupations aren't as different as you might think.

"When you look at the math requirements of each of the jobs, if you look at the skill requirements, in terms of how much knowledge is needed in operating machines and things like that, those two jobs actually have a lot of skills in common," Wagner says. "Sometimes there are occupations that seem very different that are very good matches for each other in terms of getting somebody through the training system quickly."

Today, "quickly" is the operative word when it comes to Montana's workforce. An estimated 130,000 baby boomers will be reaching retirement age over the next decade. According to Wagner, "The number of young people joining the labor market just can't keep up" with the number leaving it. Throw in the department's job growth forecasts, which predict about 6,500 new openings per year through 2025, and the labor shortage on Montana's horizon comes into sharp focus.

As to what exactly those new jobs might be, that's a tougher question. DLI's data suggests they're all over the map, from food service and retail sales to teaching and construction. Wagner says the department is working hard to ensure that Montanans are as prepared as possible, by signing people up for its state-run apprenticeship program or offering would-be students guidance on what professions will match their income needs and where to acquire the education that will qualify them for those jobs. DLI has started to delve deeper into supply-side research, as well. Last year the department published a 72-page study on labor market outcomes among students at the University of Montana's two-year Missoula College, highlighting areas of study that are most likely to result in employment and wage gains following graduation. That report was a pilot project, Wagner says, paving the way for a more comprehensive study of colleges across Montana. The statewide report is slated for release later this spring.

Freshman Rep. Shane Morigeau drops House Bill 185 in the hopper in the early days of the 2017 session. Morigeau hopes the bill will help more Montanans access higher education, and add more workers to the state’s dwindling labor force. - PHOTO COURTESY SHANE MORIGEAU
  • photo courtesy Shane Morigeau
  • Freshman Rep. Shane Morigeau drops House Bill 185 in the hopper in the early days of the 2017 session. Morigeau hopes the bill will help more Montanans access higher education, and add more workers to the state‚Äôs dwindling labor force.

For Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, the growing need for skilled laborers quickly morphed into an opportunity to address another issue during his first session in the Montana Legislature. Morigeau is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and grew up in Ronan on the Flathead Indian Reservation. As a kid, he knew a lot of people who probably could have excelled in college. But higher education, particularly in poverty-stricken areas, isn't necessarily a common ambition. Morigeau considers himself lucky to have attended the University of Montana, and even luckier to have landed a job after graduation that could help him pay down his student loans.

Last month Morigeau introduced House Bill 185, the "Montana Promise Act," a measure aimed at providing qualifying students with $75 per credit toward their education at tribal and two-year colleges. Morigeau calls it a "last-dollar program," designed to complement a student's existing financial aid and incentivize enrollment in trade- and certificate-based studies. A Pell Grant might cover the bulk of a student's tuition, Morigeau says, while HB 185 could help cover the cost of books, food or housing. The program could be particularly beneficial to displaced workers looking to retrain and re-enter the labor force, he adds.

HB 185 has already garnered enough bipartisan support to pass through the House, though Morigeau did have to strip the requested $2 million in appropriations from the bill. He's now working to keep the bill on lawmakers' radar should funding become available at the end of the session. "There's plenty of time to look at funding opportunities," he says.

The financial aid in Morigeau's bill may not sound like much, but based on her experience as an academic adviser at Missoula College, Mickey Lyngholm says every little bit helps. For example, students in the diesel tech program have to acquire an extensive toolkit at a cost that can equal tuition, and isn't covered by standard financial aid. "For a student on a limited income who doesn't have family support," Lyngholm says, "up to $6,000 of tools in two years really adds up."

At least it's an investment with a good chance of paying off. According to DLI's latest report, Montana can expect up to 118 openings a year for automotive technicians and mechanics through 2025.

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