Two-thirds of Montana college and university graduates end up leaving the state to find work elsewhere, according to the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research. And while the state's employment rate is high, Montanans don't typically make much money—a 2015 report from the Montana Department of Labor ranks Montana at 47th in the nation in average earnings.
"Every place has at least one problem, and in Missoula and Montana the problem is that wages are pretty low," says Bryce Ward, BBER's associate director.
Ward says he's a big booster for Montana's outdoorsy, small-town lifestyle, and his goal is to find ways to bring educated Montanans back to the state while fostering the kind of 21st century industries that pay higher wages. On April 26, Ward plans to unveil the prototype of an online service he calls "Meet Me In MT" at an economic seminar in Billings. The service won't be public for a few months at least, but he envisions it as similar to a dating website, but for people who want to live and work in Montana—particularly people with skills in knowledge-based industries like software development and web design. His theory is that big companies will locate to Montana and boost the economy only if they can draw workers with the right skills. Some tech-focused startups are already here—Ward points to Missoula companies like Submittable, Workiva and GatherBoard.
"I've talked to lots of firms, not just tech firms, and they're saying there's not a lot of workers here," Ward says. "Something needs to be done in breaking that cycle."
Ward, a native Oregonian, envisions Meet Me in MT serving people like his wife, a native Montanan. When they lived in Portland a few years ago, he says, she always wanted to move back home.
"My wife looked for jobs in Montana every day when we lived in Oregon. And I don't know that most people have that diligence," Ward says. "Maybe they just pull up a job board once and think there's no jobs. So the goal of Meet Me in MT is to get people to say, 'Yes, I'm interested, here's things you can use to match me with employers.'"
At the Montana High Tech Alliance, Executive Director Christina Henderson says she hears from startups that want to keep their headquarters in Montana—they just need tech-savvy applicants with coding skills. She supports Ward's idea for Meet Me in MT.
"The No. 1 barrier to growth for tech firms in Montana is access to high-tech talent," Henderson says.