Recession-resistant jobs 

Not everyone is feeling the brunt of a brutal economy. An ammo producer, mortician, mechanic and more divulge the secrets to steady employment in Missoula.

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Mechanic

Lindsey Owen

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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY

"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."

—Skylar Browning

Visionary

Hank Green

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?"

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY

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."

—Skylar Browning

Registered Nurse

Lisa Leikam

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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY

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."

—Ira Sather-Olson

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