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 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."
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."
Rick Evans defies the stuffy, stoic, humorless stereotype that characterizes most funeral directors. The owner of Garden City Funeral Home smiles easily, loves chitchat and apologizes because he lacks bourbon to top off a visitor's coffee cup. He's also not above the occasional well-placed curse word and loves a good joke.
Why'd he become a mortician?
"I like to drive big cars," he quips. Plus, he adds later, "All your clients look up to you."
Although humor rarely applies to something as permanent as death, Evans says it's the only way for him to be truly compassionate in his job.
"You have to be yourself," he says. "If you're not, families will see right through it. You have to put yourself in their place."
Evans' ring tone is Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," a pertinent tune for a funeral home director. He says that 80 percent of his job is simply dealing with families who would generally prefer to be anywhere other than Evans' office.
"People are forced to come to me not at a time of their choosing," he acknowledges. "It's not like being a car salesman."
Unlike many industries, funeral homes can rely on a steady supply of business. But despite the continual demand for his services—roughly 1,100 people die in Missoula County annually—Evans says compassion still serves as the backbone of his business. In fact, he points out that mortuaries are one of the more localized industries in the country, with, he says, 90 percent of funeral homes running as "mom and pop operations." Chains simply don't work. Before Evans started his business, a Canadian conglomerate owned the funeral homes in Missoula. It went out of business, Evans says, because "you can't run a funeral home like a hardware store," he says.
"You want people to shake their heads in 30 or 60 days and say, 'They really helped me,'" he says. "You don't want people to feel that they were taken advantage of."
During a down economy, that means trying to work within the means of his customers. He invites families to have an honest discussion about their financial affairs and makes suggestions like cheaper caskets or a graveside service. He also says many families will decide to cremate the body, and perhaps scatter the ashes with no burial costs at all.
"The family is oftentimes devastated," he says. "And they're not thinking straight. A good, honest funeral director will help them through that difficult time."
Being honest doesn't make the job any easier. Evans has lived in Montana most of his life and because he's been here so long, and because Missoula is so tight-knit, Evans will occasionally be called upon to prepare the body of a friend.
"You want to do it for free," he says. "But you can't. It's my job. And it's a service that needs to be performed."
Selling more than a half-pound of weed a month means cash for cross-country trips. It also means extra money for cocktails and beers at local bars, and sushi or steak dinners in downtown Missoula. And, for Carlton—we won't give his real name or day job for obvious reasons—selling weed also means he can afford to pay for the big things in life.
"I paid for half a wedding and all of a honeymoon," he says. "And it's extra cash to be able to do things like get gas for road trips, get hotel rooms, pay campground fees. I budget my life off my regular paycheck for bills, car payments, stuff like that. Everything else—the fun stuff—comes from the other money."
Carlton dabbled in selling weed in high school back in the early '90s. But eight years ago he started making it a dedicated supplemental job. His wife at the time suggested he start selling weed because he was spending so much of their money on it for his personal enjoyment.
"I was hooking her friends up for favors, running errands for them anyway," he says, "so I just started buying bulk and started going from there with constant turnaround."
Carlton looks like any normal dude in Missoula. He lives in a nice ranch-style house, drives a four-runner and owns a Blackberry. As he talks about his side business, he sits comfortably in his chair at a downtown bar, rolling cigarettes and sipping a PBR. As a drug dealer, he maintains about 15 regular clients. He sells his goods at $50 for an eighth of an ounce, $100 for a quarter, and his profit margin is about 20 percent.
"I basically take that cash money and it never sees the inside of my bank," he says. "That's mostly because it smells bad—it needs to be laundered in more than one way—since it's all kept in the same safe [as the weed]."
Carlton says his clients remain consistent, even during a recession. If one cuts back on his or her intake for a stretch, it never lasts long. He's also noticed that weed's quality and availability never wavers in a down economy, so there's never a need for prices to fluctuate.
"Frequency drops sometimes, but I still have the same number of clients," he says. "Definitely no one has quit because they can't afford it. That would be like giving up your Pabst Blue Ribbon, or, if you're not inclined toward drinking, it's like giving up your yoga. A lot of people need to get their yoga in. Potheads need to get their relax time in."
Carlton says that he could make dealing weed a full-time job, if he wanted. He knows several people who make a living off the practice, though they're usually higher up the chain than him. In fact, he says, the number of people who sell weed locally and continue to do well despite the economy shows precisely how lucrative the business is in Missoula. For instance, he says a sports team he plays on includes four different dealers on the roster.
Still, going full-time would require him to expand his clientele, which, in this profession, involves risk. His current clients are friends he's known for a long time or, if not, friends of friends he trusts. He scoffs at "messing with" high school students or college freshman because of the chance that he could get caught. For him, the two jobs—one legal, one not—balance each other out. And in tight times, that makes a difference.
"It totally lessens the blow of a recession," Carlton says. "This job kind of makes my normal job recession- proof. It provides me with money to do recreational things that I might not otherwise be able to afford in a recession."
When the phone rings at Kent Bros. Automotive and Lindsey Owen picks up the receiver, the reaction is usually the same.
"They immediately think I just work at the front desk and they ask for a mechanic," says Owen, 22. "When I say I'd be happy to help them, there's always a little bit of a pause. At first, that was a little bit of an annoyance. Now, I get a kick out of it."
A year ago Owen became the first-ever "sister" mechanic at Missoula's most popular Subaru garage, Kent Bros. She started learning the ins and outs under the hood as a kid, serving as "the expert flashlight holder" when her father worked on the family car. Once Owen purchased her first ride, a Nissan Sentra, her father passed down everything he knew and let her take over. After a brief stint working at a local Jiffy Lube, Kent Bros. owner Steve Bierwag recruited Owen to work at his shop.
"To me, I love the job because you see what you do and the result every day. It's right there," she says. "I know how an engine sounds when it comes in, and I know that it sounds better when I drive it out."
Owen works with three other full-time mechanics and Bierwag on approximately 10 cars every day, four days a week. She and Bierwag report that business has been exceptional this summer—they're currently booked two weeks out—and things hardly drop off in the winter. With fewer consumers purchasing new cars lately—the "Cash for Clunkers" program notwithstanding—more people are paying to upkeep their current automobile, or buying used. That helps keep Kent Bros. busy.
"I'm extremely happy to have this job," says Owen. "I have friends who are stuck looking for work right now, so I know how thankful I am to be working here, in a steady position and with a boss that takes great care of everyone in here."
This wasn't always Owen's plan. She enrolled at the College of Technology to learn to be a surgical technician, but put that on hold because she couldn't afford to cover her bills and tuition. While she's not necessarily done with that career track, she's fully embraced her current gig as one of the few women wielding a wrench professionally in a garage.
"I'm proud of it," she says. "I'm still learning every day—I think we all are—but I'm confident in what I know and confident in my abilities. I'm not looking to change anything."
Hank Green wants nothing to do with this interview. For one, he's naturally humble and self-deprecating, and it's hard to be either when some newspaper writer wants to plaster your name under the title, "Visionary." Second, he's not sure this whole "visionary" title fits. Although he's twice capitalized on the slippery fortunes of new media, he's not sure that makes him anything but lucky.
"It's important to me to say that most of what we do is silly," he says. "Can you just make sure people know this is all a little silly? I mean, all of it?"
Fair enough. Green's rise to—no joke—international stardom is lined with its fair share of silliness. He is, after all, an Internet celebrity, made famous by a year-long video blog he created in 2007 with his brother, Indianapolis-based author John Green. What started as a way for two brothers to reconnect turned into an online phenomenon, with their "Brotherhood 2.0" videos watched more than 40 million times. YouTube ranks their ongoing channel—Vlogbrothers—among its top 50, and the brothers have been featured on National Public Radio, in the Wall Street Journal and as the keynote speakers at LeakyCon 2009, a Harry Potter convention hosted by The Leaky Cauldron fan site (Hank sings songs on the vlog, including some Potter-inspired hits). Exhibit A of silliness playing a factor in the brothers' rise to fame (aside from Potter-inspired songs): Some of their most popular "Brotherhood 2.0" videos feature a brief screen shot of giraffes having sex; the one titled "People Who Love Giraffes Who Love Giraffes" was seen 3.3 million times alone.
"If we started doing what we do now, we wouldn't have ever been popular," says Hank, 29. "YouTube had a lot more growing up to do when we started, and we were able to grow along with it. There are a lot of people who are much smarter and much better looking than us who just got there after we did."
Hank and John came out of the "Brotherhood 2.0" experience with one of the Web's most cherished commodities: a fiercely dedicated fan base. Known as "nerdfighters," the community of mostly 13–17-year-old women supports nearly any project the brothers present. That includes vaulting John's latest book onto the New York Times bestseller list for children's books, or submitting videos to help the brothers complete "The Happy Dance Project," which ended up featuring clips from six different continents. Hank says he and his brother now cultivate a 12,000-strong e-mail list of the most diehard nerdfighters.
"It's two different things to grow a community and make it stronger," explains Hank. "Those who are already a part of Nerdfighteria [the "place" where fans reside] want one thing—to feel part of an exclusive club—but we can't grow it if it only includes inside jokes. We spend a lot of time searching for a balance."
Hank's lesser known—but equally successful—project is the creation of EcoGeek.org, the Web's first environmental technology website. Hank launched EcoGeek in May 2006, while enrolled in the University of Montana's environmental studies program, and, like Brotherhood 2.0 and the niche popularity of vlogs, beat the Al Gore-inspired masses to another burgeoning corner of cyberspace. (An Inconvenient Truth premiered in the United States in June 2006.)
"The ad market the year after I launched the site was ridiculous," says Hank. "I was getting $20 CPMs [cost per thousand impressions], which is TV-level prices on the Internet. That didn't last forever, of course, but the site still does well."
EcoGeek and Brotherhood 2.0 make up just two of Hank's long list of projects. His success with the vlog created a spin-off record label, DFTBA Records, which produces albums by YouTube stars. Hank and John have also expanded their YouTube channel to include video shows featuring other Internet celebrities. In his spare time, Hank helps local nonprofits create promotional or advertising videos, as well as website designs. When asked what his next big breakthrough may be, he says the better question is how in the world he ever had two successful ventures.
"All you have to do is look at the list of domain names I own to see that I've failed many more times than I've gotten something to work," he says. "Ideas are entirely, 100 percent worthless. An idea poorly executed is much more valuable because at least you're putting it out there and testing it."
That's all Hank has ever tried to do—put ideas into action and see what sticks. He knows that in a down economy, a visionary should see opportunity and seize the next big thing. But saying he's trying to do that would be giving him too much credit.
"I'm not a business guy," says Hank. "I'm much more interested in growing a community and seeing how that works. That's what's exciting to me...I'm working on a bunch of different ideas, but I have no idea what will work next."
On a given day, Lisa Leikam draws blood, hands out medication, starts IVs and bandages nasty wounds. She also sits behind a desk, fielding calls and managing a staff of 25 to 30 nurses as director of nursing for Hillside Health Care Center, a skilled nursing facility near the bottom of Missoula's South Hills.
Working in the midst of a recession, Leikam finds herself in a unique position. Unlike, say, the automotive industry, nursing hasn't been hit by massive layoffs or lost profits. Rather, as Baby Boomers start to age and increased attention is put on elderly care, the industry is taking off, and demand seems as high as ever.
"It seems to always be a need right now...I'm always looking for nurses," she says on a recent Thursday afternoon, noting she hired a new employee earlier that day.
Nationally, the nursing industry, especially registered nursing, seems to be a viable path in a shaky labor market. A study published in May by the trade journal Health Affairs indicates the recession has actually been a boon to the industry: As more people pursue nursing as a profession, it's temporarily alleviating the nation's chronic shortage of registered nurses, a problem that's plagued the industry for decades. However, the study also says the shortage is likely to increase again, since many veteran nurses are within a few years of retiring.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2008-2009, also notes that job prospects are extremely promising for nurses. According to Bureau estimates, the industry is expected to create as many as 587,000 new jobs within a 10-year time frame, from 2006 to 2016.
Liekam, a 20-year nurse originally from Billings, believes the flexibility of a nursing degree is one of the profession's biggest advantages. "You can specialize in a lot of different things," she says, listing things like long-term and acute care, as well as management-level office work. But the biggest reason the job remains steady is more obvious.
"People always need health care," she says.
As for her own career path, Leikam joined Hillside seven years ago after the company transferred her from Billings. She and her employees care for 82 patients that range in age from 46 to 99, with most averaging about 70-years-old. The typical patient stays at Hillside after they can no longer live alone, or for closely monitored rehabilitation.
As she sits in her cream-colored office, with her dog Gigi milling about and older residents passing by in wheelchairs, Leikam exudes the bedside manner expected of a nurse. Job security's nice, but she's quick to emphasize that the reason she chose this job was to help people.
"I did a lot of baby-sitting growing up, helping others," she says. "I guess I still kind of do that when I'm not working as a nurse. I still care about people and try to help out where I can."