Collaboration key to solving worker shortage

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All of the indicators point to a robust economy in the Flathead Valley. Unemployment rates are at historic lows and wages are up. Visitation levels are still on the rise and tourists are spending more than ever before.

By all accounts, the valley’s economic engine is purring along quite nicely.

Yet, even with all these success markers, many local employers are cutting back on hours and services. The trouble? A serious imbalance of job openings and workers who are willing to fill those slots.

“Business is great. The only problem is staffing. This year seems insurmountable,” lamented Dave Sheeran, owner of Second Street Pizza in Whitefish and Kalispell.

The staffing shortage isn’t just affecting one community or industry. It’s an issue that has plagued businesses trying to fill entry-level service positions to highly skilled industrial roles, according to Laura Gardner, Kalispell Job Service manager. “There’s probably no industry that’s not touched by the worker shortage,” she noted in a recent interview with Daily Inter Lake reporter Bret Anne Serbin.

A panel of Flathead business leaders gathered last week at the Summer Staffing Summit in Whitefish to sound off and swap ideas for overcoming these hiring challenges. The Whitefish Chamber organized and hosted the event.

Not surprisingly, an acute lack of affordable housing was pinpointed as a major impediment to finding and keeping local employees.

We’ve seen some progress on this front — Whitefish adopted an affordable housing program earlier this year — but the current hiring crisis signals loud and clear that more work needs to be done. The valley’s economy simply can’t expand beyond its current state if workers can’t afford to pay rent here.

Unfortunately, solving the housing situation won’t happen overnight — it could take years or even decades.

That puts the onus on local employers to surmount their own hiring challenges through creative solutions. A few ideas that came out of the Summer Staffing Summit included being more lenient with hiring, fostering a positive and appreciative work culture and emphasizing non-monetary benefits and perks.

In simple terms, prioritizing workplace morale has never been more important.

And if wages have been stagnant, this worker shortage will likely force some business owners to reassess their payroll, as well.

Ultimately, it will take a multi-prong, community-based approach to overcome this challenge that affects both employers and employees. And as the summer bustle fades into fall, we hope our community and business leaders keep this topic top of mind.

We applaud the Whitefish Chamber for starting the discussion — now let’s keep that conversation and collaboration going. Our valley’s economic vitality depends on it.

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