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Recession-resistant jobs

Not everyone is feeling the brunt of a brutal economy. An ammo producer, mortician, mechanic and more divulge the secrets to steady employment in Missoula.

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This Labor Day, many of you will kick back on the front porch, crack open a cold one and enjoy the last three-day weekend of the summer before returning to the usual weekly grind. Many more may not feel quite so comfortable and will crack open the classifieds instead, in search of steadier—or better—work.

With the nation's economy still struggling, some businesses have laid off workers, cut back hours or folded altogether. Montana's unemployment rate slightly increased in July—up from 6.4 to 6.7 percent—and traditional cornerstone industries like timber and construction continue to suffer the most.

"Like the national economy, the Montana economy is showing mixed signs of recovery," says state Labor Commissioner Keith Kelly. "Compared to the significant financial and economic downturn this past winter, the mixed signals can be seen as a blessing. However, we are eagerly awaiting clear indications of job stability and an economic recovery."

We're waiting, as well. In the meantime, we've decided to sidestep those frustrating market fluctuations and profile the lucky ones when it comes to job stability. The following seven local professions appear to not only be steady, but actually thriving in the current economy.

Ammunition Production Manager

Misty Browning

Misty Browning navigates the machinery at Bitterroot Valley Ammunition and Components (BVAC) the way she might stroll through her kitchen. She treats loaders, pallets and inspection conveyors more like home appliances. Despite the deafening clink of thousands of rounds being primed and shaken, Browning doesn't even wear earplugs.

"When I started working here, I knew nothing about ammo," says Browning, 29. "I'd never shot a gun. Now I wouldn't want to work anywhere else. I can support my boys [she has three]...People are just dumbfounded by it. 'What is it like? Can I get a job?' I wear my [BVAC] T-shirt at Wal-Mart and I get people saying they saw me on commercials or asking if we're hiring."

The upbeat vibe at BVAC is perhaps best characterized as a byproduct of the recession and the election of President Barack Obama. Fears over gun rights and economic hardship have firearms enthusiasts nationwide stockpiling ammunition. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, background checks for gun purchases topped 7 million in the first half of 2009, a 24-percent increase over last year. Ammo manufacturers are struggling to fill months-long back orders–an unquestionable indication that business is, forgive the pun, booming.

But Browning's story boasts a unique twist: BVAC is less than two years old and was founded just as the economy tanked. Owner Darren Newsom left his post as manager of the Hunting Shack–a Stevensville-based manufacturer–in January 2008 and started his own company in Florence. Now BVAC churns out 300,000 rounds a day, Browning estimates.

"He's really big about hiring down here in the valley, keeping jobs local," Browning says. "Even if they're working minimum wage an hour, they're employed. It's an opportunity to get up and help the valley out."

Browning's experience serves as a comforting story for those frantic about job security. A native of Midland, Texas, she moved to Montana in 2001 and scored a job at the Hunting Shack in 2005. Like others at BVAC, she followed Newsom to Florence. Now she's production manager for a company servicing law enforcement offices in Montana and Kansas, as well as private dealers as far-flung as New Zealand and the Philippines.

"I didn't know a lick of anything when I started," Browning says. "I went from someone who sat on the production line inspecting ammunition to a full-on production manager."

Walking down the assembly lines, Browning nods to her brother Michael, working an automatic loader. BVAC more than doubled its employees since opening, Browning says, from 20 to 45. About 30 work full-time for $8 to $10 an hour. Most have kids at home, and none are shy about working overtime.

"There are times that we have employees coming in at 7 in the morning to work and you see them loading a truck at 8:30 at night," Browning says. "It's always busy."

BVAC quickly outgrew its Florence facility, prompting Newsom to construct a warehouse in Stevensville that roughly triples production space. BVAC expects to relocate in October and, judging from Browning's seven clipboards of orders, that couldn't come soon enough.

"It's a given that everybody's going to slow down," Browning cautions. "But even when it does, we could work six more months just filling back orders. And there's always a demand for ammunition. We serve law enforcement, hunters—someone's always buying."

—Alex Sakariassen

Pawn shop employees

Gene Senne, Bo Dahlgren and Kristal Cowart

Local pawnshops house what people, in a pinch, are willing to give up for cash. And in the midst of a recession, especially, the items themselves serve as evidence of who, exactly, needs extra dough.

Walk into Downtown Pawn & Gun on Broadway and, beyond the electric guitars, guns, mountain bikes, leather jackets, cameras, analog TVs, video games, tapes and DVDs—all the pawnshop staples—you'll likely see a surfeit of power tools, left behind by unemployed workers who, just a few years ago, couldn't build houses in Missoula fast enough. The trowels still have a little drywall mud on them. There are piles of hammers, socket sets and drill bits.

Of course, the poor man's plight leads to more business for the pawnbroker: When the economy sours, more people throw down their stereo, say, as collateral for a loan. And when they can't pay that loan back, there are more people looking for a deal on a decent stereo.

"Sales are up," says Downtown Pawn & Gun owner Gene Senne. "We're selling more stuff, so I guess people are buying more used instead of new. Business is good."

So good that Senne had to recently hire more workers.

"We used to be a one-man show," he says. "And now we're a two or three man show. I always have at least two people there now, and a lot of it's because of the sales activity that goes on. We're selling a lot more stuff."

But the shop hasn't seen an increase in loans or loan defaults. Senne says the number of people who default on collateralized loans has generally stayed steady, at about 20 percent.

On a recent Friday, Bo Dahlgren, 21, and Kristal Cowart, 28, man the counter. They both say that the recession definitely hasn't hurt the business. "I'm glad I still have a job," says Dahlgren, who's worked at the shop for about three years.

Interestingly, national pawnshop trends don't exactly mirror what's happening at Downtown Pawn & Gun. Dave Crume, president of the National Pawnbrokers Association, says that at most pawnshops around the country retail sales are flat, but they benefit from the down economy by giving out more loans, which tend to be high-interest. (Downtown Pawn & Gun, for example, charges 20 percent interest per month.)

"If you go into most pawnshops you can see inventory building up a little bit, particularly this time of year," Crume says.

He also reports a glut of power tools.

"Whether it's a nail gun or hammers, drills and things like that, we're definitely seeing a lot more power tools than we have in the past." And jewelry. "With the price of gold I think more people are deciding to part with what they consider to be a luxury item."

Missoula's pawnshops might be doing even better if the local economy was faring worse.

"Right here in Missoula, we're awfully, awfully lucky," says Liquid Assets owner Kevin Pfau, "because our unemployment rate is hanging at about five percent, about half of what it is nationally. If we were up around Kalispell, where they've had about 13 percent unemployment, we'd be busy."

But while Pfau hasn't seen a big up-tick in business, he has noticed that one item in particular is flying off the shelves: safes.

"People are buying safes, nationally, in record numbers," he says, "because they're buying guns and they're spooked by banks, and they're afraid of the increase of home theft and so on. So people are buying more safes to secure their possessions."

—Matthew Frank

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