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Opportunity Fair aims to address staffing shortage

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | March 21, 2021 12:00 AM

As “Help Wanted” signs spring up everywhere in the Flathead, organizers of the first-ever Workforce Flathead Opportunity Fair next month hope the venue will lead to results for employers desperate for workers.

The reimagined job fair starts in early April and runs throughout the month. It will feature educational opportunities and industry-specific presentations each week, starting with manufacturing, followed by tourism, hospitality and retail, then health care and bioscience, and finally concluding with business, finance and other workforce opportunities.

It’s an effort to facilitate better connections between employers and job seekers, especially ahead of the busy summer season.

Most area employers are looking forward to a boom in business during the tourist season, but none seem sure it will be possible to get the staff to meet the spike in demand.

“We’re really starting to see employers really, really struggle,” said Kate Lufkin with the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, one of the partners behind the Opportunity Fair. “It’s a massive problem.”

But it’s not a new one.

Flathead Valley employers have bemoaned a seasonal staffing shortage during most summers in recent memory.

“We were facing historic unemployment lows before the pandemic,” Lufkin pointed out.

The unemployment rate in January — the last available month of data — was 6.5% for Flathead County, above the national rate of 6.3%, and also higher than the state’s January jobless rate of just 4%. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 jobs are currently open on the Job Service Kalispell website, with more being added every day as summer approaches.

Insufficient housing, wages and skills have all been cited as factors contributing to the workforce shortfall. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem by adding business closures, curtailed travel and generous unemployment benefits to the list of headaches plaguing employers.

“What’s new?” remarked Jeff Gregoire, the owner of Jagz restaurant, when asked about the struggle to find seasonal help. “It’s been horrible.”

The roadside restaurant on U.S. 2 relies on a “tight-knit crew” of returning workers to man the kitchen year-round. Gregoire started putting feelers out in mid-March for seasonal positions, while waiting for the restaurant to adjust back to full operation following pandemic limitations.

He said Jagz only needs a “handful” of new faces to fill out the staff for peak season, but even that could be asking too much, based on the difficulty of hiring for the past few summers.

It’s an issue that’s plaguing small businesses, large operations, and everything in between.

WHITEFISH MOUNTAIN Resort hopes to hire approximately 160 seasonal workers this summer, but Human Resources Director Kristi Hanchett anticipates that will be a big mountain to climb.

The Food and Beverage Department might have the hardest spots to fill, Hanchett predicted, since back-of-house positions perennially pose some of the biggest challenges for businesses with a kitchen component.

Perhaps the most insurmountable obstacle for Whitefish Mountain Resort surrounds international workers. That supply of employees was all but eliminated at the start of last summer. Hanchett said the resort would like to bring in at least 30 foreign workers, but she isn’t optimistic about reaching that total.

The uncertainty is a hardship unto itself for seasonal employers who depend upon Glacier National Park traffic.

Keshia Fisher at Glacier Highline called her predicament a “catch-22.”

Employers like the Coram activity center have been riding wave after unpredictable wave in preparation for this summer, navigating travel restrictions, potential policies in the park and surging interest in outdoor activities.

It’s created a maelstrom for people like Fisher, who isn’t quite sure how many people she’ll need to bring on and when—if ever—they can fully commit to spending the summer with Glacier Highline.

“Where am I at?” Fisher wondered about her potential roster for opening up on Memorial Day weekend.

“I’m kind of interested to see how that all plays out,” she said. “It’ll be a crazy summer.”

Strictly seasonal businesses such as Glacier Highline aren’t the only ones feeling the workforce crunch.

Proof Research in Columbia Falls is actively recruiting with multiple eye-catching displays along U.S. 2, in the hopes of filling various new jobs at the high-tech manufacturing center.

“We have many, many positions open,” said Human Resources Manager Kim Johnson.

Unlike Glacier Highline or Whitefish Mountain Resort, Proof isn’t beholden to a three-month window for filling those spots. Nonetheless, Johnson said the goal is to bring on new hires “as soon as possible,” because the company is growing.

Proof’s openings range from entry-level machine operators to accountants, and Johnson said Proof is willing to train candidates, depending on what they bring to the table.

The firearms manufacturer is further evidence of the widespread nature of the Flathead’s workforce woes.

And the effects might be even more far-reaching than most locals realize.

LUFKIN SAID the Kalispell Chamber took on the Opportunity Fair cause because Chamber members of all stripes have been feeling the effects of the staffing shortage.

The Chamber has been hard at work bringing more out-of-town visitors to the area through efforts like adding new flights into Glacier Park International Airport, but those initiatives are undermined by understaffing at lodging, dining and attractions.

That, in turn, hurts the local tourist economy, which has repercussions for the Flathead’s overall development, well beyond a restaurant kitchen or a ropes course.

“We have to staff these places,” Lufkin urged. “It’s a big problem…it’s got to be solved in a lot of different ways.”

Those include community-wide improvements such as affordable housing and accessible childcare; job perks like competitive wages and benefits; and creative approaches to recruitment like advertising remote work options.

The importance of these measures can’t be understated. “Every industry we work with says the same thing,” reported Job Service’s Gardner. “Workforce is their number-one issue.”

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.

The Workforce Flathead Opportunity Fair will be held virtually at workforceflathead.com. The weekly schedule is as follows: April 5-9: Manufacturing and the Trades; April 12-16: Tourism, Hospitality and Retail; April 19-23: Health Care and Bioscience; April 26-30: Business, Finance and Other Workforce Opportunities

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A "Now Hiring" sign waves in the wind in front of Proof Research along U.S. 2 on Thursday, March 18. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)