The best jobs in town

This week, more than 3,500 students from the University of Montana will graduate—and wish they were stepping into one of these perfect gigs



Multiple studies show today's college graduates are crap out of luck compared to those who came before them, destined to live in Mom's basement, work retail or intern (again) for nothing or, worse, join a sizable backlog of unemployed college graduates. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, labels this growing segment of the population "disconnected youth," and piles on the bad news. Mainly, disconnected youth risk irreparable harm to their career track and lifelong earnings. Those who do land jobs will earn less than the generation that came before them; 8 percent lower, to be specific, than college grads in 2007. It's enough to make you even more depressed about leaving behind a cushy class schedule, afternoon wake-and-bakes and Century Club parties.

If there's any escape from these damning statistics, it's the thought that Missoula's different. Oh, our job market is no less challenging—maybe even more challenging in some ways, considering our baristas often hold master's degrees. But what's different is how we measure what separates a good job from one that just pays the bills. It's not as much about money—though that's certainly nice; all those craft brews and new canoes don't exactly pay for themselves. It's more about flexibility, autonomy, a healthy work environment and a deep connection to this place we love. There's a reason you see more mud-covered SUVs than sports cars in this town, why Carhartts outnumber power suits. We want time to play, or at least play while we work. That's why this list looks a little different than most. The job market may suck, but hopefully there's some comfort in the fact that Missoula allows for—hell, encourages—a skewed career path.

  • Cover photo courtesy Montana River Photography

Melody Oliver

Age: 39

Occupation: Taproom Manager

Place of work: Big Sky Brewing

Salary: Undisclosed, except for the free beer part

It's no surprise that some connection to Missoula's bustling craft brew industry would blip on the Indy's radar for one of Missoula's coolest jobs. But after talking with Melody Oliver, the taproom manager at Big Sky Brewing, it's clear why her position in the craft beer world deserves the nod on this list. Oliver, 39, has been working at Montana's largest brewery for nearly 12 years, and while she says, dryly, that she just "pours beers and folds T-shirts" in Big Sky's taproom, that modest job description belies the satisfaction she gets from her work.

Oliver spends most of her time with customers, explaining the beers and selling the myriad logo'd merchandise displayed near the bar. During the summer, she says, the taproom stays busy with vacationers. But even during the off-season, Oliver says the local faithful keep her pouring. "I've met so many interesting people while working here. Not only my coworkers, but the customers," she says. "From local regulars, to the tourists we see year after year. It's awesome."

She adds that she makes a point to remember all of her customers' names, whether they come every day or once a year on vacation. "I literally can set my clock to when people come in," Oliver says. "Mike will be here right when we open at 11."

Like all people who work and thrive in the service industry, Oliver enjoys treating people well and providing them with products that make them happy, which is easy at Big Sky. "It's alcohol," she says coyly. But what may set her job apart from some other drink pourers in Missoula is the taproom's advantageous hours—open at 11 a.m., with last call never past 6:30 p.m.and the way her employer treats its employees.

Oliver says her bosses take seriously the fact that she hunts, among other outdoor activities, and that sometimes the season might call her away from work. She says flexibility of schedule and a mutual understanding about the mental health benefits of getting into the woods means that she and her colleagues are allowed "to live and to work." On the day Oliver talked to the Indy, she'd just returned from a turkey hunting trip in the Selway.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"We're trying to promote a Montana lifestyle..., " she says. "Everyone here loves to do outdoor things, it's a priority."

And if her flexible schedule isn't enough, there's this: A door in the back of the taproom opens to Big Sky's brewing and bottling operation. The area looks like what could be a hangar at Boeing if not for the stacks of Moose Drool and the dudes in Carhartts packing bottles into cardboard boxes. At the far end of the space is an enormous walk-in cooler, at the threshold of which a whiteboard provides a friendly reminder for employees: "If you need a case(s) of beer, be it for yourself or the taproom, please check the pallet(s) below before you grab off of other pallets..."

The satisfaction of making people happy, like-minded coworkers, a boss who understands the salmon fly hatch is unpredictable and good for the soul, and, of course, free beer—two cases every month. Oliver knows she has it good.

"I love what I have," she says. She looks at the sign outside the walk-in cooler and smiles. "I already got mine for this month."

Jamie Rogers

Anna Bengston

Age: 34

Occupation: Wilderness Ranger

Place of work: Nez Perce National Forest

Salary: $28,800

To get to her day job, Anna Bengston hikes 25 miles up a thin dirt trail that hugs a wild river in the backcountry of northeast Idaho. Instead of traffic jams and road rage, she meets fallen logs, icy creeks and the occasional rattlesnake as she goes deeper and deeper into the woods. Talk about a commute.

After the hike that begins her field season, Bengston settles in at Moose Creek Ranger Station, a compound of log cabins, two primitive backcountry airstrips and a handful of public campsites that serve as the Forest Service's principal outpost in the 1.3-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness on the Idaho-Montana border.

  • photo courtesy of Jim Bengston


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