HELENA — The Montana Department of Labor and Industry has released its Labor Day report, an annual breakdown of the state’s economy and workforce.
Leaders celebrated what they described as a “booming economy,” as Montana added 19,568 jobs in 2021 – the most reported in a single year. The statewide unemployment rate fell to just 2.3%.
However, the report shows clear challenges, too, as the state saw more than 40,000 unfilled job openings a month, and inflation slowed the growth of workers’ “real wages.”
This year’s report shows some significant variation in the economic indicators from industry to industry and from region to region. From 2019 to 2021, the strongest job growth was concentrated in areas like business services, construction, and trade, transport and utilities. Each of those industries has added at least 2,000 jobs compared to its 2019 levels. Leaders pointed to growth in tech businesses, the availability of remote work opportunities and the high demand for new housing as some of the reasons that they’ve grown.
In 2021, “leisure activities” – including hotels, restaurants and recreation – had the greatest single-year job growth of any industry in the state. However, they still remained about 1,000 jobs short of where they were before the start of the pandemic.
The report also shows businesses are still struggling with finding available workers.
“For some reason, it is just challenging,” said Amy Barrett, who co-owns Lasso the Moon Wonderful Toys in downtown Helena with her daughter Savanna.
Barrett is currently trying to replace a long-time employee who recently left.
“It’s a great job for someone who needs flexible hours and not too many – a retired person, a Carroll College student,” she said. “It’s a fun place to work!”
So far, the position has been open for about a month and a half. Barrett says she’s hoping to find someone soon – with their busy holiday season fast approaching.
“That is a concern – we want someone well trained before the crazy hits,’ she said.
According to the report, more than 20,000 employees a month were quitting their jobs by the second half of 2021. Leaders say the large number of open positions gave workers opportunities to switch jobs and negotiate better pay.
As businesses seek to attract workers, Montana’s average wages grew 5.9% in 2021, to $51,331. However, real wages – based on buying power adjusted for inflation – grew only 1.3%. In central and eastern Montana, the report shows prices grew faster than wages did.
Many of those leaving the workforce have been baby boomers reaching retirement age. The state now has more than 200,000 retired people. Still, the report says a greater share of those over 65 are staying in the labor force compared with 20 years ago.
Once again, the report identifies housing affordability as a major constraint on workers. It found Montana’s home prices rose by 44.3% over the last two years, compared with 34.3% across the U.S.