Help Wanted

Portraits from Missoula's daunting job market


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Even when Missoula County’s unemployment rate reached an all-time low of 2.2 percent in late 2006, the city carried a reputation for being a difficult place to find work and make a living. Baristas with graduate degrees served coffee, former big-city professionals made tacos, too many friends to count juggled multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Now, with no community immune to the global recession, statistics show Missoula’s job market has finally caught up to its reputation. Unemployment reached 5.5 percent in December, the highest since 1997. The Missoula Job Service reports a record number of walk-ins a month—more than 7,000 in January. Labor Ready fills with job seekers each morning at 5:30, most of whom sit watching television, playing cards or thumbing a book, waiting for work that rarely gets offered. The few new job listings posted around town—for even the most menial work—attract hundreds of applicants.

The situation in surrounding areas appears worse. In Flathead and Ravalli counties, unemployment rates hit 8.7 and 8.3 percent, respectively, in December. The national unemployment rate jumped to 8.1 percent in February. (The federal government releases unemployment statistics a month or two in advance of state and county numbers.)

As bleak as the unemployment situation appears in Missoula, economist Larry Swanson stresses the need for perspective. Missoula experienced 7.5 percent unemployment in 1992 and 10.2 percent in 1991, fluctuations inherent to the region’s boom and bust economies.

“Montana and Missoula and western Montana, historically, have had such a bumpy economy that all you have to do is go back over time and you can see—been there, done that,” says Swanson, who works for the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

That said, Swanson believes the local numbers will still get worse before they get better. Montana’s unemployment rate jumped from 5.0 percent in December to 5.6 percent in January, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics announced March 11. If Montana continues its current climb behind the national trend, Swanson predicts a report of 6.2 percent unemployment for February. “We’re actually living the story the papers will be reporting in two months,” he says.

The dismal state of the local economy will not come as news to the men and women profiled in this story. They represent a cross-section of everyday Missoulians struggling to find their worth in a changing job market.

Hal Edwards

Hal Edwards worked at the mill in Bonner for 35 years, moving up from general labor to quality control and safety. His wife worked at the same mill for 29 years.

But in July 2007, the Stimson plywood plant shuttered and Edwards and his wife were among 130 workers who lost their jobs. The layoffs foreshadowed the broad effects a deeply troubled housing market would have on Montana’s already struggling forest products industry.

In 2008 Montana’s wood products industry employed about 9,070 workers, down from the industry’s recent high of about 11,000 workers in 2002 and the all-time high of more than 13,000 in 1978, according to figures from the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Recent layoffs at Plum Creek and other timber companies ensure the number of people working in the industry has dropped even further.

After the Stimson layoffs, Edwards, 58, quickly landed a position at Montana Glass. But that job also succumbed to the hobbling housing market. He was laid off again in January 2008 and remains unemployed today.

“We went from working at Stimson and making between $70,000 and $75,000 a year between the two of us to, when they shut the mill down, making half that,” says Edwards. “Now that I’m not working it’s been reduced again... It hasn’t been a slight change in our lifestyle—it’s been a dramatic change in our lifestyle.”

Edwards and his wife Kim, 53, have raised eight children. Five were once enrolled at the University of Montana at one time—Dad wears his Griz jacket proud—and one kid, a high school senior, still lives in the house. He’s looking for work, too.

“So basically the whole family is unemployed,” Edwards laughs.

When the mill closed, Edwards and his wife both received displaced worker grants through the union. Kim opted to be retrained and enrolled in the College of Technology’s two-year medical assisting program.
According to Barry Good, dean of the College of Technology, Kim’s decision reflects one common option for unemployed workers. He reports that spring enrollment jumped 103 students from last semester to 1,744 total, an uncommon increase.

“I suspect that the reason there’s an increase in enrollment right now at the College of Technology between fall and spring is because of the situation with the economy,” says Good.

With his wife in school, Edwards focused on distributing his resume to businesses all over Missoula. The one job he really wanted and felt qualified for involved meter reading for NorthWestern Energy. But the opening was also referred to 703 job seekers at the Missoula Job Service, the vast majority of whom probably applied, according to supervisor George Palmer. “For one single job that was very close to the record,” Palmer says.

Edwards estimates he has about 20 applications submitted elsewhere. He peruses sites like and daily, but he says only one or two labor jobs pop up each week.

Meanwhile, he’s adjusting to a new life of frugality and free time.

“We’ve never had to worry about grocery shopping,” he says. “If we wanted to go to the store it was nothing to spend a couple hundred dollars. Now we have a set list, and if there’s one thing over the list that we see that’s on sale maybe we’ll go ahead and buy it. We shop all the sales, like the cereal sale at Rosauers. It’s kind of embarrassing because I’ve never had to do that, but it’s part of our life now.”

He has plenty of projects around the house—like finally putting in that new Pergo floor in the kitchen—but doesn’t have any money to tackle them.

“So I got the old bread maker out,” he says. “I’ve been making bread—four or five loaves of bread a week—just trying to, you know… because I’ve got lots of spare time. It’s nice to be able to go back and do those simpler things. One day I made a loaf of white bread, I made a loaf of banana nut bread and four dozen peanut butter cookies.”

Edwards says he has a couple promising leads, mainly warehouse and customer relations work—jobs he thinks are well-suited to someone with 35 years experience doing various duties at the Bonner mill.

“I do have a pretty good background,” he says. “And I just hope that, because I don’t have the degree in animal husbandry, that they say, ‘This guy went to the college of hard knocks and he’s got a lot of good experiences. He’s got some good years left in him so let’s take a chance and see what happens.’ That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Jenny Harris

Rising paper costs and dwindling advertising revenue have caused newspapers across the country to announce layoffs or outright closures at a startling pace. In Montana, papers owned by Lee Enterprises are among the hardest hit. The Missoulian and Butte’s Montana Standard both laid off at least 13 employees in the last year. The Helena Independent Record and Billings Gazette also laid off at least 10. Lee’s stock, which traded for more than $40 a share in 2004, has dropped to less than 35 cents.

The trend leaves new reporters like Jenny Harris looking for work.

Harris, 24, grew up in Missoula and graduated from Montana State University with a degree in English literature. After working 15 months at the Ravalli Republic, the paper eliminated her position. 

“The hardest part, I think, was that it’s a small newsroom in a small community and really you’re friends with everybody,” says Harris, who was voted the region’s best reporter in a reader’s poll.

Now, living in her parents’ basement, she questions the future of journalism and focuses on casting a broad net to find her next opportunity.

“I’m young and just starting out in this business,” Harris says. “I’d like to keep going but I don’t know where it’s going. I don’t know if it’s reliable. I don’t know if there are any more jobs. I don’t know if it’s the end of the newspaperman. So it’s really time to take a deep breath and look at more law books, I don’t know…”

Law school provides just one option for Harris. She applied to several schools, including the University of Montana, but worries the student loan debt could make it a “life sentence.” She also applied for about 25 jobs in and around Missoula—restaurant, clerical, and even timber construction positions—to no avail.

“I think for every applicant you’ve got 20 people behind you who are way more qualified,” she says.

For now, Harris works as a house sitter and babysitter to help get by. She’s also preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa.

At the end of the month she, along with four other young Montana women, will travel to Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Ghana as part of a Rotary Club student exchange fellowship for young professionals. Their itinerary includes a month touring hospitals and educational facilities on western Africa’s Ivory Coast, highlighted by spending Togo’s Independence Day administering the polio vaccine. Harris applied for the fellowship while still employed by the Republic and with the support of her publisher.

“Through the confusion of being unemployed and being let go it was still nice to walk away with something really positive and something that came out of that,” Harris says.

The trip only suspends Harris’ job search temporarily. She’s unclear what she’ll do when she returns, but cherishes the fact that she’s in a more flexible position than most.

“There are a lot of people who are married and have children and have a mortgage, and I’m young and single and still navigating my way,” she says. “It could be much worse.”

Tom Dunton

A few years ago, a couple from New Jersey vacationing in Missoula fell in love with the university district and bought a beat-up, 900-square foot home. After renting it to students for a couple years, they hired remodeler Tom Dunton to completely gut it and add an addition. Now they live in Missoula part of the year.

“I think they paid $200,000 for the house, and then put $300,000 into it,” surmises Dunton, “but the house they sold in Jersey paid for everything—and they even put money in the bank.”

In today’s market, fewer homeowners can afford to sell a high-priced New Jersey property and invest in a comparatively cheap home in Missoula. As Dunton says, “With all the foreclosures in the other places, people aren’t selling their homes.” It’s one of the ways Missoula is being pulled into the national recession, and he’s feeling the repercussions.

Dunton, 55, worked at Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s Frenchtown paperboard mill for 20 years as a boiler operator. He ran a handyman job on the side, and in 2001, when the local building industry began its boom, “I chose to let go of the security of a 20-year paycheck and break out on my own,” he says. He started Advantage Home Improvement.

After starting his own business, Dunton joined Garramone Builders in 2006 as a superintendent. But in December, the company let him go.

“Builders are on the front line of this slowdown,” says economist Larry Swanson says. “When it got to us, we saw a slowdown in real estate activity, which then translated into a slowdown of construction activity, because much of our construction activity is residential. The slowdown in real estate and residential construction translates into a slowdown in commercial construction.”

Swanson says the bulk of Missoula’s—and the country’s—newly unemployed comes from construction industries.

“I think when things were really booming,” Dunton says, “you had people—and I’ll put myself in that same boat—who were very good with a one- or two-man operation who, due to demand, ramped up, got a bigger crew, went after larger projects than just the one- or two-room remodel to full-house remodels.” Then demand fell off.

Dunton currently collects unemployment. However, he fully expects to be back on the job site with Garramone within six to eight weeks, when the weather turns warmer and building activity picks back up. Projects are already in the queue, he says. Fortunately, while the savings he banked away during the good times are dwindling, “I’ve positioned myself to where I’m not in a tailspin.”

Today, custom homebuyers are still around, but there’s been a sharp decline in the number of spec homes being built, Dunton says.

“There are owners that we’ve worked with—they’ve got their plan, we have their permits, they bought the property and we’re building them exactly what they want,” he says. “And that ranges anywhere from over a $1 million house to a $300,000 house, where before you might have done a couple spec homes and the builder would go to the bank for a construction loan hoping it would sell.”

But Dunton, who has three kids in Missoula who all work in the industry, believes Missoula’s market is bound for a rebound. With its low prices relative to other parts of the country, stable employment anchored by the University of Montana and because Montana lenders didn’t hand out sub-prime loans willy-nilly, he sees the market somewhat protected from the worst of the global recession.

“At times I think we speak a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says. “‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling.’ So therefore people are waiting for the sky to fall. I think people have to be fiscally responsible, but actually the opportunities—you have to be careful—but the opportunities right now are great. We have the ability and, done correctly, we can weather this storm and insulate our local economy, I think fairly readily. It’s not all doom and gloom.”

Jammye Haroldson

On a Wednesday morning at Missoula’s Labor Ready office, five men play cards at a table while Jammye Haroldson sits nearby reading a book. Others watch television and thumb through magazines. Some showed up as early as 5:30 in the morning hoping for temporary work and some quick cash, but no one appears headed to a job site anytime soon.

Haroldson, 40, has been waiting for hours at Labor Ready every day for two weeks. He’s only been offered a job once, but he couldn’t accept it due to a conflicting meeting with the Office of Public Assistance to get food stamps.

Haroldson’s unemployment status has little to do with the recent economic downturn, but his story shows that when the economy contracts and unemployment rises, the first to feel it are those already struggling.

Last year, Haroldson worked as a driver for Jim Palmer Trucking. On September 29, 2008, he was heading to Illinois for a delivery when, on I-80 in Iowa, an SUV crossed the median and struck another SUV before sideswiping Haroldson’s rig. Two people died and five others were injured. The police report claimed it was a suicide attempt by the SUV driver, and the Department of Transportation called it a “non-preventable accident.”

Haroldson flew home to Missoula, received counseling and was back behind the wheel after just a few weeks. Then in January this year, he hit a patch of ice while driving in Washington and jackknifed his truck. Police said he was driving too fast for conditions. Jim Palmer then deemed his insurance premium too high. After a total of eight years with the company, he was fired.

Haroldson doesn’t qualify for unemployment insurance compensation because, technically, the accident was his fault. And now, with no income whatsoever, he and his family are on the brink.

“Since then I’ve probably put in 30 applications,” he says. “I filed at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, Lowes, Home Depot. I’ve filed for dishwashing jobs at several local restaurants. Janitorial
positions. Right now I’d push a broom just doing anything.”

Two businesses have called Haroldson, but neither offered interviews. When he follows up on his own, he hears that most companies are not hiring.

“Come the first of the month—not to be negative or anything—I see us getting an eviction notice,” he says. “If we can’t pay the rent…”

Haroldson, who spent 10 years in the military, needs a job to support his wife and two children, ages 12 and 18. His wife suffers from multiple sclerosis and is unable to work, and his youngest son, who suffers from enuresis, is in state custody. Haroldson doesn’t specify why his son was taken away, but says not having a job is an impediment to getting him back.

While Child and Family Services declines to talk about any specific cases, the agency does anticipate an increase in the number of children placed in state care because of the economy. Coral Beck, a regional administrator, says they haven’t seen the increase yet.

“When you factor in a lot of different struggles people have, like chemical dependency and mental health issues and domestic violence and all of those things—one piled on top of the other piled on top of the other—at some point there is something that is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” she says. “Sometimes economics is that straw that breaks the camel’s back. But it’s not solely the only issue. There’s usually a multitude.”

Unless Haroldson can convince the state otherwise—and soon—another family will foster his son until he’s 18.

“Basically [to get my son back] I need to have income coming into the house, and I have to have a house over my head and transportation. Well, I meet one of the three,” Haroldson says. “I got transportation—but I’m about to lose that because if I don’t have money to pay for gas, I’m going to be walking.”

Which is why he sits reading a book at Labor Ready, every morning, hoping to be put to work.

“Life ain’t far,” he says. “Nowadays it ain’t.”

 Jim McMahon

Jim McMahon attended his first job interview at the age of 62.
“And I was scared just crapless,” he says.

After mustering his courage, McMahon got all “spiffied up” and “went in with the attitude, ‘You know, I am going to make you like me. That’s all there is to it.’” It was his first job interview after applying for 37 different positions.

McMahon found himself unemployed after working 42 years in the tire business servicing semis, logging trucks and off-road vehicles. In December 2007, Davis Transport laid off McMahon and about 10 other employees, in part because high fuel prices forced the company to reorganize. He had worked at the company for 16 years.

“In your mind you’re invaluable,” says McMahon. “The company can’t run without you. And that’s great, because you have to have that feeling, even at just a common labor job like I had for so many years. And then, one day, the ax falls. Anybody with a lick of sense can see it coming.”

McMahon worked for a local parts store in early 2008, but then, “as the economy kept sinking and the orders kept getting smaller, I was just taken off the schedule,” he says. “There were no more hours for me.”

McMahon collected unemployment for the next five months. He applied for more than three-dozen jobs, but none called to offer an interview. He thought all he was cut out to do was change tires, he says, and there certainly weren’t any more jobs doing that.

“I guess the worst part about the whole unemployment situation is you realize you don’t have much value anymore,” he says.
Nor did his 401k. During his time at Davis Transport, McMahon put 15 percent of his paycheck into his retirement fund, and the company matched it. But when the economy tanked, so did his nest egg.

“When I want to check my 401k I just go to the bathroom and lift the lid up from the toilet and look down the bowl,” he says. “And there it is, right down at the bottom, what’s left of it.”
McMahon’s wife of 39 years, Anita, refused to let him get depressed. He credits her with smacking him upside the head and telling him to “Square up, stupid!” And then, after applying for the fourth time at the same local business, he was asked to interview for a full-time housekeeping position.

Determined and dressed to the nines, McMahon made his case, and was offered the job. “I said, ‘I want it. I’ll take it. Right now,’” he says. “I was just tickled to death to get it.” He started two weeks ago.

The day before beginning his training, McMahon said: “I told them going in that I’ve got five good years left in me. At the end of five years, I’d love to walk into my supervisor’s office, shake his hand, thank him very much for the opportunity he has given me, wish him the very best, and tuck my lunch bucket under one arm, my jacket under the other, and just waddle on down the street.”

Sheila Mischke

Sheila Mischke realized what was on the other side of the bubble and slid off before it popped.

She worked as a real estate agent in Missoula for about nine years before noticing a slump in sales and getting out of the business in November 2006. Her husband Craig also left the the industry at the same time.

“We realized that the market was probably getting saturated and we were peaking out,” Sheila says. “So we went out on our own, and he started doing handyman work and I went into another line of work to hedge our bets.”

According to the Missoula Organization of Realtors (MOR), total home sales in Missoula dropped from 1,385 in 2007 to 994 in 2008. The Mischkes count themselves among the many real estate agents in Missoula who, as a result, either jumped out of the business entirely or have found other ways to supplement their income until the market recovers.

MOR membership dropped to 605 in February, down from a high of 778 in September 2007. Statewide, the Montana Board of Realty Regulation reports 888 Realtors declined to renew their licenses in 2008, about 15 percent of the group’s total in 2007. And the number of new licensees fell about a third between 2007 and 2008.

“I have met several [Realtors] already who have full-time jobs somewhere else doing other things,” says Sheila. “They’re keeping it under their hat, they’re not telling people, but they really aren’t working as realtors anymore, even though they are in the association and paying their dues.”

Sheila knew the writing was on the wall when mortgage companies began to fail. She had deals fall through at the last moment.

“We started to see how you could get to closing and the sellers would sign, and there’d be a pre-approved buyer waiting to sign in two hours, and, literally, their lending institution went under and they couldn’t sign,” she says. “It happened to us twice.”

To make ends meet, Sheila, 44, and Craig, 41, started to “flex.” She kept her broker’s license and continues to occasionally take referrals. Last fall she became a certified real estate instructor and began teaching the county’s pre-licensing class for real estate agents. She also picked up a job at Albertson’s as a checker, and another at Hastings as a barista, a job she still has. Craig remains an “at-your-service handyman.”

“I have no pride,” says Sheila. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s better to be working anywhere than to sit around feeling sorry for yourself. It just does not fly.”

The circumstances made for a difficult 2008. The family of four—the Mischkes have two children, ages 12 and 14—survived on about half the income they had when Sheila and Craig worked in real estate. When Sheila’s mother became ill and Sheila had to leave town to care for her, money was even tighter. 

“We scrambled, but we survived,” she says.

But Sheila’s “flex” strategy continues to pay off. A couple weeks ago Fidelity Real Estate tapped her to head up its new property management division. The company’s move reflects how real estate businesses are diversifying to stay afloat during the downturn, just like Sheila did.

“This has been a two-year process, but I think as most people have pointed out to us—it’s hard for us to remember this—we were a year ahead of the game,” she says. “So going into this I think we’re pretty set. If things go as planned and I can grow this property management office like I think I can, then we’ll just be fine.”

Hiring help

Three tips from local experts on how to land a job

Even in a crummy job market, the occasional new job still gets posted. With competition peaked for those open positions, we asked three local experts to offer advice on how to get your resume or application to the top of the pile.

Know the company
George Palmer of Missoula Job Service recommends that applicants study the company they want to work for, understand its philosophies, and be ready to articulate how your skills are transferable to the position.

Tailor your resume
Mike Heuring, director of University of Montana’s Career Services: “Without fail when a student or community member or an alumni comes in and talks to me, and they say, ‘Mike, I’m having no luck. I’m sending out hundreds of these things and I’m not getting any bites,’ the first and only question I have to ask them is, ‘Have you customized your letter and resume and targeted it to those things in the job description that they’re looking for, so as they read your resume and cover letter it reads very much like that job?’ They say, ‘No.’ Invariably, they say, ‘Hell no, that takes too much time.’ Looking for a job is a job.”

Play up prior performance
Lynne Nelson of Nelson Personnel says if you’re able to land an interview, don’t dwell on what your duties have been, but on what you’ve actually accomplished for former employers. “I like to call it SAM,” she says. “It means what did you ‘save’ the company, ‘achieve’ or ‘make.’ Using this acronym will help.” Nelson also suggests writing a handwritten thank-you note after the interview. Make sure they get it the next day.



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