Flathead labor pains 

The unemployment news in Flathead County looks bad even when the numbers show a slight improvement. For instance, about 7,000 people sought assistance at the Flathead Job Service in January, a slight decrease from November and December. But manager Bill Nelson thinks he knows why.

“The primary reason is they know there aren’t jobs to look for,” he says. “A lot of the folks we do see are people who are coming in to use our resources to apply for unemployment.”

The Flathead’s unemployment rate rose to 8.7 percent in December, the fourth highest in the state and behind only the less-populous Sanders, Lincoln and Glacier counties that border it. Northwest Montana has been hit hard by layoffs at Plum Creek, Semitool and Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.

Nelson says only about 50 jobs are currently available at the job service, down from an average of around 250 before the economy went south.

Flathead Valley Community College reports a 20 percent surge in spring enrollment as a result of the economy. Career counselor Charlene Herron is helping match laid-off workers with retraining programs. Some workers, she says, are realizing they may not be able to remain in the region.

But while an 8.7 percent unemployment rate in Flathead County seems high compared to the record-low 2.5 percent rates in the summers of 2006 and 2007, economist Larry Swanson of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West says it’s historically normal.

“[Rates] are really popping back up to where they were back in the ’90s,” Swanson says. “Many of our areas here have some familiarity with these very high unemployment rates just in our very recent history. As a matter of fact, that’s how our economies used to operate.”

Swanson also points out that the area’s manufacturing sector may be hurting, but it has been for a long time, and it no longer drives the economy. Quality of life does, which normally brings construction and real estate activity.

“The ultimate challenge for places that are largely growing because of their attractiveness is to gradually and strategically evolve economically into a place that doesn’t require ‘growth’—more people, more houses, etc.—in order to continue to advance economically,” Swanson says. “The Flathead and other places in the interior West haven’t advanced to this point, and so they are vulnerable when something interferes in the growth process itself.”

He expects unemployment rates in Flathead County to start dropping in April after climbing to as high as 10 percent.
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