The best jobs in town 

This week, more than 3,500 students from the University of Montana will graduate—and wish they were stepping into one of these perfect gigs

Multiple studies show today's college graduates are crap out of luck compared to those who came before them, destined to live in Mom's basement, work retail or intern (again) for nothing or, worse, join a sizable backlog of unemployed college graduates. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, labels this growing segment of the population "disconnected youth," and piles on the bad news. Mainly, disconnected youth risk irreparable harm to their career track and lifelong earnings. Those who do land jobs will earn less than the generation that came before them; 8 percent lower, to be specific, than college grads in 2007. It's enough to make you even more depressed about leaving behind a cushy class schedule, afternoon wake-and-bakes and Century Club parties.

If there's any escape from these damning statistics, it's the thought that Missoula's different. Oh, our job market is no less challenging—maybe even more challenging in some ways, considering our baristas often hold master's degrees. But what's different is how we measure what separates a good job from one that just pays the bills. It's not as much about money—though that's certainly nice; all those craft brews and new canoes don't exactly pay for themselves. It's more about flexibility, autonomy, a healthy work environment and a deep connection to this place we love. There's a reason you see more mud-covered SUVs than sports cars in this town, why Carhartts outnumber power suits. We want time to play, or at least play while we work. That's why this list looks a little different than most. The job market may suck, but hopefully there's some comfort in the fact that Missoula allows for—hell, encourages—a skewed career path.

  • Cover photo courtesy Montana River Photography

Melody Oliver

Age: 39

Occupation: Taproom Manager

Place of work: Big Sky Brewing

Salary: Undisclosed, except for the free beer part

It's no surprise that some connection to Missoula's bustling craft brew industry would blip on the Indy's radar for one of Missoula's coolest jobs. But after talking with Melody Oliver, the taproom manager at Big Sky Brewing, it's clear why her position in the craft beer world deserves the nod on this list. Oliver, 39, has been working at Montana's largest brewery for nearly 12 years, and while she says, dryly, that she just "pours beers and folds T-shirts" in Big Sky's taproom, that modest job description belies the satisfaction she gets from her work.

Oliver spends most of her time with customers, explaining the beers and selling the myriad logo'd merchandise displayed near the bar. During the summer, she says, the taproom stays busy with vacationers. But even during the off-season, Oliver says the local faithful keep her pouring. "I've met so many interesting people while working here. Not only my coworkers, but the customers," she says. "From local regulars, to the tourists we see year after year. It's awesome."

She adds that she makes a point to remember all of her customers' names, whether they come every day or once a year on vacation. "I literally can set my clock to when people come in," Oliver says. "Mike will be here right when we open at 11."

Like all people who work and thrive in the service industry, Oliver enjoys treating people well and providing them with products that make them happy, which is easy at Big Sky. "It's alcohol," she says coyly. But what may set her job apart from some other drink pourers in Missoula is the taproom's advantageous hours—open at 11 a.m., with last call never past 6:30 p.m.and the way her employer treats its employees.

Oliver says her bosses take seriously the fact that she hunts, among other outdoor activities, and that sometimes the season might call her away from work. She says flexibility of schedule and a mutual understanding about the mental health benefits of getting into the woods means that she and her colleagues are allowed "to live and to work." On the day Oliver talked to the Indy, she'd just returned from a turkey hunting trip in the Selway.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"We're trying to promote a Montana lifestyle..., " she says. "Everyone here loves to do outdoor things, it's a priority."

And if her flexible schedule isn't enough, there's this: A door in the back of the taproom opens to Big Sky's brewing and bottling operation. The area looks like what could be a hangar at Boeing if not for the stacks of Moose Drool and the dudes in Carhartts packing bottles into cardboard boxes. At the far end of the space is an enormous walk-in cooler, at the threshold of which a whiteboard provides a friendly reminder for employees: "If you need a case(s) of beer, be it for yourself or the taproom, please check the pallet(s) below before you grab off of other pallets..."

The satisfaction of making people happy, like-minded coworkers, a boss who understands the salmon fly hatch is unpredictable and good for the soul, and, of course, free beer—two cases every month. Oliver knows she has it good.

"I love what I have," she says. She looks at the sign outside the walk-in cooler and smiles. "I already got mine for this month."

Jamie Rogers

Anna Bengston

Age: 34

Occupation: Wilderness Ranger

Place of work: Nez Perce National Forest

Salary: $28,800

To get to her day job, Anna Bengston hikes 25 miles up a thin dirt trail that hugs a wild river in the backcountry of northeast Idaho. Instead of traffic jams and road rage, she meets fallen logs, icy creeks and the occasional rattlesnake as she goes deeper and deeper into the woods. Talk about a commute.

After the hike that begins her field season, Bengston settles in at Moose Creek Ranger Station, a compound of log cabins, two primitive backcountry airstrips and a handful of public campsites that serve as the Forest Service's principal outpost in the 1.3-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness on the Idaho-Montana border.

  • photo courtesy of Jim Bengston

Bengston, a 34-year-old wilderness ranger, is charged with protecting that massive hunk of land for eight months of the year. It sounds like a pretty sweet gig, but certainly for the right type of person. "It's a lot of solitude," Bengston says. "I've gotten to be pretty comfortable working and spending a lot of time alone in the woods, but it took me a while to get there."

The job also demands a solid knowledge of primitive skills. Bengston needs to know how to pull a saw, swing an axe, ride a horse and read a map, among other things. "Learning how to be proficient with horses and mules, to be able to pack them, I think that has been really neat," she says. "There is always something more to learn."

A wilderness ranger is a jack-of-all-trades, and Bengston puts her skills to work in many ways. She surveys and maintains trails, monitors campsites, advises fire crews, manages volunteer trail workers, enforces Forest Service regulations and keeps the ranger station ship-shape. It's not all old-time adventure and backcountry bliss, however. When stationed way back in the woods, things can go wrong in a big way.

Bengston's most fearsome experience took place in summer 2012 when she responded to a fatal plane crash on the Moose Creek airstrip. A bad gust of wind brought down a departing plane, which burst into flames and left the pilot dead and his passenger bleeding and traumatized. Bengston, with the help of a volunteer trail crew stationed at Moose Creek, tended to the survivor.

"The plane crash was a stark reminder that accidents and emergencies can happen at any time, and there is a big difference when you're 25 miles into the backcountry," she says. "Outside the wilderness it's not unlikely to have highly-trained first responders and ambulances on scene within minutes. For us, it was myself and a Montana Conservation Corps trail crew and some members of the public who were first on scene ..."

Bengston called in an emergency helicopter and helped the survivor recuperate in the ranger station until he could be flown out. Bengston says it took her some time to come to terms with the tragedy.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

All in all, however, the wilderness lifestyle involves benefits that can't be quantified. In addition to the sunrises and sunsets, the beautiful views, the clean water, the good work and the adventure, Bengston gets nearly four months off each winter to rest, reconnect with her family and travel. She spends a good deal of time in Missoula, which is one of her main stopovers between field seasons. When spring rolls around, she heads back to the woods and carries on a proud tradition of watching over the wilderness.

"Moose Creek Ranger Station was built in 1920, and since then there have been wilderness rangers doing similar work to what I am doing, helping take care of the wilderness and the station," she says. "I feel like it is an honor to be able to be in that line of wilderness rangers. It is an honor to be part of that."

Jimmy Tobias

Mickey Smith

Age: 26

Occupation: River Guide

Place of work: Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures

Salary: $100/day plus tips, "which can be sizable"

The banks of the upper Missouri River are lined with towering white sandstone cliffs, teepee rings and petroglyphs. The Missouri's rich cultural and ecological history makes the waterway among Mickey Smith's favorite boating trips—and he has a lot to choose from.

For the past seven years, Smith has guided vacationing tourists and adventurous locals on Colorado, Idaho and Montana waterways, tackling rivers as diverse as the Lochsa, the Arkansas and the Blackfoot. This summer will mark Smith's fourth working for the Missoula-based Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures. He loves the job because, among other things, he gets to always have fun. "You get to be with people on their vacation," he says.

Smith, who holds a master's degree in math from the University of Montana and teaches during the off-season at Missoula College, describes his guiding approach as more intellectual than daredevil. That's among the reasons he favors the Missouri. His love of maps is well suited to the waterway, which explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark charted more than 200 years ago. Lewis took particular note of the sandstone cliffs, which, as he wrote in 1805, "exhibit a most romantic appearance." Smith enjoys sharing historical tidbits like that during Missouri River canoe trips that can last as long as six days.

Being a river guide satisfies more than just Smith's historical curiosity. Originally from Texas, he's an outdoorsy guy who first envisioned his current job during childhood raft excursions with his father in Idaho. "I guess on one of those trips it was always in the back of my head, 'Maybe I could do this,'" he says.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

He didn't seriously contemplate the profession, however, until a guide friend from college inspired him to try it as a summer job. Smith took a three-week training course and passed a test run on the Arkansas River. "I was a guide," he says. "And I was hooked."

For the first three years that Smith worked on the water, he lived out of his car in a tent community with other guides. He made instant friends with those who, like him, wanted to be outside all summer long.

"We would always joke, 'What do river guides do on their day off?' We go rafting," he says.

There are a couple of significant differences between boating for fun and guiding professionally, however. One of them is cash. Smith says he earns between $60 and $100 per day before gratuities, which can be lucrative, especially on the Lochsa. "People love that trip," he says.

Rated a Class IV rapid, the Lochsa's fast water and technical challenges far surpass the Missouri's. The pace is thrilling for most customers, but it can be scary for others. That's the other main difference between boating for fun and guiding professionally: responsibility. Successfully captaining a boat requires a combination of skill, leadership, patience and a calm demeanor when dealing with nervous customers. (One trick: Smith says he tries to alleviate anxieties by getting crews to focus on paddle commands during the initial leg of a journey.) In the end, the most important lesson he teaches his charges is to keep their oars in the water.

"Paddling keeps you in the boat," he says. "You tell people that. They don't really believe you. But throwing your hands up in the air and screaming is a really good way to fall out."

Jessica Mayrer

Linda Muth and Lesley Washburn

Age: 61 and 34

Occupation: Costume designer and props master

Place of work: Missoula Children's Theatre

Salary: "very livable" for Missoula

Imagine this job description: Make fluffy clouds and lush gardens out of young children. Build a castle tower in just a few weeks. Recreate a famous painting. Collect vintage beer steins. Research facial hair. Make sure everyone who needs a hat has one.

That might sound like the delusional lifestyle of an eccentric, but in the world of community theater it's just another day in the costume and props room. Longtime Missoula Children's Theatre and Community Theatre costume designer Linda Muth has been dressing actors for the stage since 1991. She's in charge of shopping for fabric and overseeing the construction and fittings, as well as any other aspect of costuming that goes into community productions. Muth works alongside props master Lesley Washburn, who started at MCT in 2006. Washburn goes by the "three Bs" rule—borrow, buy or build—to make sure she gets all the books, picture frames, lamps, umbrellas and bigger set pieces, like furniture and drapes, that make a staged production's atmosphere complete. Both Washburn and Muth work full-time and say they make a wage that's "very livable" for Missoula as part of an organization with a $5.5 million annual budget. And they're supported by a handful of staff who help make their creative visions come true.

"I have a wonderful staff who helps if I get stuck in my head about something," Muth says.

Talking with Washburn about her approach to props brings to mind a problem solver like MacGyver. For MCT's production of Footloose last year, she had to create the look of a school gymnasium that had been built decades ago. The time period required all the details, even the lights, look antiquated.

"I went to the Dollar Store and by finding the right shapes, like a little trash basket and a dip bowl, I was able to make a light that looks like something from a gymnasium from the '60s," she says.

In other instances she's had to be less MacGyver and more experimental artist.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"If a set-designer wants a painting that looks like a Pollock on the wall, then I'll maybe look up some Pollocks and I'll slap some paint together and stick it in a frame," she says, laughing. "No one will ever accuse me of being a true forger of art, but I'm able to do things like that in this job."

Despite their whimsical veneers, these behind-the-scenes jobs are not for the laid-back daydreamer. There's pressure to be precise, especially during a play's run. In a hallway behind the stage at the MCT Center for Performing Arts, a props table is stacked with shelves meticulously labeled for each set of items. The beer steins, for instance, are stacked together for the tavern scenes in the recent production of Les Misérables. Across from the props, Muth's costumes are carefully divided into vests and peasant dresses, hats and other accessories. Everything must be in place for when actors make their entrance on stage; there's little room for error.

Both women also do work on the children's theater productions, specifically the touring shows where MCT staff take props and costumes on the road to communities across the nation. For those shows Washburn sews the sets, which are made from fabric so they can break down easily.

"We've got one right now, Rapunzel, with a big tower which has giant hula hoops and uprights," Washburn says. "You take some bolts apart and the whole thing collapses down and it can all fit into a truck."

The children's shows are almost more challenging than the adult community productions. Props have to be made to withstand different temperature conditions and transportation, not to mention handling by youngsters. The other difficulty is that most community theater involves realistic fashions, but children's shows require a level of absurdity.

"As far as designing is concerned, it's very fun to research the Renaissance or the French Revolution," Muth says, "but then when the director comes and tells you that the 5- to 7-year-olds are going to be clouds, you say, 'How am I going to make a small child look like a cloud? Or a mosquito?'"

The Secret Garden was an especially tough task when Muth was told she had to dress children as a dead garden that comes to life on stage. "We tried a couple of different permutations before we came up with something that was actually going to work," she says. In the end, she made the kids brown capes with dead leaves that could flip over to reveal green and flowery fauna underneath.

Muth and Washburn see those difficult obstacles as the good kind of challenge that requires creativity. The payoff is sweet, usually involving the sight of some little kid dressed as a cloud waving proudly to her family in the audience (even when she was told not to wave at the audience.)

"It is a lot of fun," Washburn says. "I get to try new things—and sometimes they fail. But I consider myself very lucky to be able to have in Missoula a stable job that's creative. I find myself very very fortunate."

Erika Fredrickson

Don Gisselbeck

Age: 59

Occupation: Mechanic

Places of work: The Trail Head, Bike Doctor, Adventure Cycling

Salary: $15,000

One of the biggest prerequisites for a prime Missoula job involves having the flexibility to duck away on gorgeous powder days in the winter or on bluebird afternoons in the summer. Few locals have that schedule dialed in as well as Don Gisselbeck, who's managed to carve out a niche in two of Missoula's main recreation pursuits.

Gisselbeck, 59, runs the ski shop for The Trail Head in winter and turns wrenches for the Bike Doctor in summer. He also works the occasional junket as the mechanic for multi-day Adventure Cycling trips. But a life of grease and gears wasn't his first choice of work; he calls himself a "recovering teacher."

After graduating from the University of Montana in the 1970s, Gisselbeck signed up for the Peace Corps, taking on a hardship posting in Sierra Leone. Fresh out of college, he taught English for three years in a classroom without electricity or running water. He calls it a "tough job," but optimistically adds that it allowed "a poor farm kid from Montana [to see] the world." To round out the adventure, he traveled from Kenya to England, taking whatever public transport was available.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

Once Gisselbeck made it back to the United States, he wound up teaching at Thompson Falls' Spring Creek Lodge Academy for at-risk youths in the mid-'80s. It was important work, he says, but emotionally taxing. Part of his job at the lodge was to keep the kids' fleet of mountain bikes in good shape, which gave him a glimpse of his future. He left Thompson Falls to work as a bike mechanic in Seattle for more than a year, then returned to Missoula, where he's been fixing bikes and skis ever since.

There are downsides in the day of a mechanic, he says, like the boredom of mundane tasks and the occasional attempt to rescue a bike that's better suited for a junk heap. But for the most part, Gisselbeck's pretty pleased that he can support himself and, just as important, have access to some of the most beautiful country on earth. He sees a nonmaterialistic, outdoorsy lifestyle as a "poke in the eye" to the upper classes. "The idea that you should be working 80, 90 hours a week, even to get highly paid, that's obscene," he says.

When Gisselbeck turned 50, he had a "midlife crisis" of sorts and resolved to ski at least once a month, year-round. He likes lift skiing just fine, but relishes the pristine calm of Bitterroot or Glacier backcountry during the spring. He calls May the start of the "real ski season."

"It's nice to have jobs where you can go, 'It's my birthday next Tuesday, I'm gonna take that off and go ski.'"

Kate Whittle

Michael Rees

Age: 64

Occupation: Hot Air Balloon Pilot

Place of work: Mountain Butterfly LLC

Salary: $12,000 just for piloting

Michael Rees glances up from the handheld GPS hanging from his neck just long enough to check the horizon line. The peaks behind the nearer ridges are beginning to sink awaya sure sign that we're losing altitude. Rees flicks a switch above him and, in response, a four-foot flame shoots upwards from one of the two propane burners overhead with a deafening roar. Rees' lips move as he counts to three. He shuts off the burner, then consults his GPS again. The peaks along the horizon start to grow again.

We're dangling above Missoula's South Hills at 5,100 feet in the smallest of the three hot air balloons that make up the Mountain Butterfly LLC fleet. Rees calls it a "glorified laundry hamper," and it seems an odd place for him to be. Rees doesn't particularly enjoy heights. "I don't like commercial aircraft," he told me a few days ago. Every time he flies in an airplane, he resigns himself to the fact that he's going to die. Yet here he is, an FAA-licensed pilot with a graying mustache and a brown leather jacket, consulting three different GPS units in the hopes of finding that perfect northwesterly air current that will take us from 39th and Paxson over to a golf course off West Mullan.

"I can't even tell what direction we're going," I say, peering down at the Bitterroot River. The balloon is moving so slowly, it almost feels like standing on the top of a skyscraper.

"Watch the tips of the trees," he replies. "Pick one and use it like a gunsight."

Rees is full of little tricks like that. The bevy of instruments strapped around the balloon's basket give him detailed read-outs, but he can sense subtle changes in direction simply from the wind hitting his face. The horizon can tell him whether he's going up or down. Smoke from slash fires or the stacks on the north end of town help him gauge what direction the wind is going at certain altitudes. If he sees hawks circling, it means trouble. They're riding thermal columns, and thermals aren't good for a balloon pilot.

Rees used to have flying dreams as a kid. They stopped for a long time, but in 1981, he had another. This time the dream was different. Rees was in some sort of bucket, and something large and dark and ominous towered above him. He explained it to his partner the next morning, and she told him it sounded like a hot air balloon. She bought him a test flight in Billings as a gift.

"It far surpassed the dream," Rees says. "Far surpassed it. I wept on my first flight."

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

By 1982, Rees had logged enough hours to get his commercial pilot's license, and he began offering flights out of Missoula with the original Mountain Butterfly. Ballooning took him to Napa Valley, Squaw Valley and Jackson Hole before he moved to Stevensville. He's crossed mountain ranges, flown for 100 straight miles at roughly 16,000 feet, hopped from Lake Tahoe to Reno to Carson City and Chilcoot. He even flew actor Brendan Fraser and his family along the Blackfoot River. When you're in the laundry hamper, you truly are in Rees' world.

It's not a cheap place to visit. Rees charges between $235 and $1,000 per person depending on the trip. But it's not a cheap place to live, either. The smallest of his balloons cost $52,000; the largest, Tweedy, cost $78,000. The balloons have a limited lifespan as well, Rees says, somewhere between 750 and 1,000 hours. Then there's the cost of propane tanks, backup propane tanks, crew pay, Rees' pay. Translation: You've got to make enough per flight to cover your expenses, pay off your debt and still save up for a replacement balloon before the first one's life runs out.

"To give you an idea, it's almost $2,000 to put it in the air every time," says Rees' partner, Gretchen Spiess. "We get calls quite a bit and people think that it'll be $50, $75, $100. It's like, 'Sorry.' And we've skimmed it to the bare-bones."

Rees relies on an ever-changing list of about 25 crew members—many of them volunteers—and he's always on the lookout for more. Any fewer, he says, and there'd be zero chance of getting three to show up on a moment's notice. The weather has to be just right for Rees to launch, which is why he asks clients to name two alternatives in addition to their preferred date of riding. If the winds aren't cooperating one day, they could be on another. While Rees has managed to make ballooning his main revenue stream over the past decade, ballooning is still an unpredictable occupation to say the least.

"It's an environment you can't control, you can't predict and you can't see," Rees says. "It has intentions all its own, and you really do have to pay attention to what's around you."

Rees is tempted to try a "splash and dash" this morning—a move where he descends to a wide stretch of river and skims the water—but we're having a tricky enough time just finding that northwesterly breeze. As we near the Ranch Club on West Mullan, Rees radios the airport control tower to announce that we're making our terminal descent. The wind picks up considerably closer to the ground, pushing us toward a water hazard. My stomach jumps, but Rees casually tosses a rope over the bolster. His crew below grabs it and, as the earth rushes up to meet us, they wrestle the basket over to a clear patch of ground right next to the golf course's dirt road.

A couple days ago, I asked Rees what keeps him going through the financial uncertainty, the finicky weather, the fact that he doesn't even like heights. He just smiled and said, "Wait 'til you go up. Wait 'til you go up." Now, with the propane shut off and the balloon crumpling to the ground, Rees shoots me that same smile.

"Get it now?"

Alex Sakariassen

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