Help Wanted Sign

Bozeman employers in tech, construction and fast food are struggling to find workers.

When Perkins general manager George Frumkes first started his job six years ago, filling positions at the restaurant was as easy as pie. 

Now, that isn't the case.

"It’s a fact that you just can’t find employees," he said. "You're sitting here like everyone else, hoping for a diamond in the rough, and it's pretty slim pickings."

Frumkes is one of many employers across industries who are posting "Help Wanted" signs and scrambling to fill positions with qualified workers. Taco John's had to close for almost two weeks in May because managers couldn't find enough workers to cover shifts. The shortage extends from the service industry to construction to tech.

Access to childcare and competition with big city employers willing to pay remote workers more money play a role, but the lack of affordable housing is often mentioned as the root of the problem. With high house prices and no rental vacancy, most people willing to work entry-level jobs aren't coming to Bozeman or are seeking other options.

Not keeping up

Construction is one of Bozeman's fastest-growing industries, according to a Montana Department of Labor and Industry report prepared for the city of Bozeman.

Still, it can be hard to find workers, said Brian Popiel, government affairs coordinator for Southwest Montana Building Industry Association.

Based on anecdotal information, Popiel said people with limited skills can get a job for $15 to $16 an hour, and $20 if you're willing to go to the Yellowstone Club. Skilled employees with five to 10 years of experience could make wages in the low- to mid-$20 range, with full benefits, though there's a lot of variation.

The shortage of construction workers is a nationwide issue, Popiel said, and Bozeman is no exception. He said he noticed a lot of people in mid-level management positions moved to other fields during the recession. There are a fair number of entry-level workers, he said, but the industry is missing skilled tradesmen.

He doesn't think the building industry is growing fast enough to support Bozeman's growth. He sees more people working overtime and less skilled people working without supervision. 

"And the elephant in that room that no one wants to talk about is we want to build more housing, but we don't have the workforce to build more housing in the first place," he said.

He also cited problems the city has had with staffing its building department, and he said it's been hard to develop new lots at the rate needed.

"I think one way it's going have to unwind itself is through a general slowdown," he said.

Finding experience

One of the major players in Bozeman's growth is tech, and business leaders say the industry is dealing with a shortage of qualified, highly skilled workers.

Christina Henderson, head of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, said every year the organization puts out a survey. One of the top challenges employers list is finding qualified workers, especially when it comes to senior positions and higher-level management.

It's a problem across the country, and it's also a problem in Bozeman, she said. On one hand, Bozeman has a good reputation and is a desirable place to live, and she often gets calls from companies wanting to move here.

But there are challenges. Universities aren't putting out enough people in computer science and technology fields, and the industry is changing so fast that sometimes skills people learn in school aren't relevant after a few years.

Montana's more rural employers are competing with big city employers who can afford to pay higher wages to people who want to live in Bozeman and work remotely.

"So it’s like, Montana companies aren’t just competing with each other for the talent, they’re competing globally," Henderson said.

The lack of affordable housing is a problem for tech companies, as well, she said.

"I’m sure that the presence of a number of tech companies that are paying high wages is driving up the cost of housing, but it’s also wrestling with the same challenge," she said. 

Mark Henry, program manager at Advanced Electronic Designs, said having Montana State University has helped the company find more of the entry-level workers, but it sometimes struggles to find qualified, more experienced workers. It feels like a lot of companies are vying for those workers, he said. Cost of living is an issue for some people looking to live here, but he said Bozeman looks good to most people, compared with places like the San Francisco Bay Area.

Jordan Komoto, vice president of human resources at Zoot Enterprises, said the company has had similar struggles. One of Bozeman's largest private employers at just shy of 300 people, he said Zoot Enterprises gets fewer applicants for open positions, and those applicants don't always have skills directly related to the job. In technical roles, he said it sees a lot of people looking to make a change in their careers.

Zoot has had luck recruiting out of MSU, though, and there are a lot of people with ties to the area looking to come back, he said. He also said Zoot has invested in company culture, opening a cafeteria, fitness center and an on-site daycare. The daycare has been very successful, he said.

Access to childcare is a problem across Montana, and it can also be a barrier in recruiting qualified members of the workforce, according to the labor department's report for the city. Gallatin County has the capacity to care for 33% of its children under 5 years old, according to the report.

Solutions

To help solve Bozeman's workforce shortage, at least for employers who can afford it, companies could recruit outside of the state and outside of the workforce, hiring people like retirees, students, caregivers or parents, said Emily Klungtvedt, senior economist with the research and analysis bureau at the labor department.

Employers can better recruit people in these positions by implementing family friendly work policies that include flexible hours, remote work policies and subsidized childcare, she said.

For entry-level jobs like those at Taco John's and Perkins, she said more teenagers could be recruited. Gallatin County has a low workforce participation rate for teenagers. The cost of living must also be addressed if employers want to solve the shortage, Klungtvedt said.

"Wages are relatively low compared to rest of the U.S.," she said. "But if the cost of living continues to rise, especially combined with childcare, transportation," she said. "That will be an issue for people recruiting workers from outside the area."

At Perkins, Frumkes has tried everything: hanging signs on the door, posting on job websites and advertising on Facebook. And it just doesn't matter, he said.

He's hired people from all demographics, from a person who was homeless and needed help to a 72-year-old baker.

Frumkes has five cooks to last him all week long. They make $13 an hour. He's had people quit before, saying they couldn't afford to make less than $20 an hour.

Sometimes, if he suspects someone is getting burned out, he'll give them a day off. But that often means he has to close early, so it's a constant balance.

Perkins has cut its hours drastically, going from being open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., to being open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. some days and until 2 p.m., other days, depending on if he has enough people to work a dinner shift.

Pretty soon, he anticipates Perkins will only be open until 2 p.m. each day, and not for a lack of business.

"You just don't have anybody," he said.

Abby Lynes can be reached at alynes@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2651. Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Lynes.

Abby Lynes covers business and the economy for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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