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Flathead gained more jobs than any Montana county this summer

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | September 5, 2021 12:00 AM

Flathead County had the highest employment gains of any Montana county in July, according to statistics from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Flathead County had 51,517 workers in July after filling 3,183 jobs over the previous year, according to state figures.

Gallatin and Missoula counties rounded out the top three spots on the list of counties with the highest employment growth since July of last year. Gallatin County took second place, with 2,852 new jobs and total employment at 72,841 people. Missoula County wasn't far behind, with 2,160 new jobs and total employment at 62,355.

The growth in the "leisure activities" sector is partly responsible for Flathead County's strong performance compared to the rest of the state. Department of Labor and Industry spokeswoman Jessica Nelson attributed the county's job growth to the area's "industry mix."

Nelson said leisure activities, in particular, saw major job losses during the pandemic. At its low point in April 2020, employment in leisure activities was down 40%.

Since then, Nelson said, "The industry has steadily recovered, and employment growth has increased in 2021 with businesses reopening and vaccines becoming available."

Gov. Greg Gianforte said the report is good news for workers "who are enjoying higher wages as our economy makes a comeback from the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Montana continues to attract workers back into our labor force, helping to alleviate pressure on employers who are looking to hire," Gianforte said in a news release.

Montana generally saw signs of strength in its workforce for July.

The state unemployment rate dropped 0.1%, to 3.6% for that month. In Flathead County, unemployment was at 3.4% for July, down 3.9% from July 2020. The nationwide unemployment rate for July 2020 was 5.4%.

Montana's total employment, which includes payroll, agricultural and self-employed workers, grew by 2,162 in July. The labor force, which refers only to people who are actively employed or seeking a job, gained 1,999 workers in July.

That same month, payroll jobs increased by 3,300. Jobs related to accommodation and food services went up by 2,900 jobs in July.

Statewide, the sector has yet to return to full strength, but Nelson reported the Flathead's recovery in that category has happened more quickly than in many other areas.

"As of the first quarter of 2021, Flathead was at 97% of the pre-recession employment level for the leisure activities sector, while the state was still at 92%," Nelson wrote in an email.

Nelson noted that gains in the construction labor force also have contributed to job growth in the Flathead. She said, "Flathead has 9.5% of private employment in construction, compared to about 8% in the state as a whole."

Two other factors have played a part in Flathead County's employment gains.

Population growth has almost certainly led to job growth, even though the Department of Labor is still waiting on county-level population data to confirm the reported population increase in the Flathead.

In addition, she pointed out, Northwest Montana started at a smaller working population than other larger Montana counties such as Gallatin and Missoula. Therefore, even though Montana's most populous counties have seen job growth this year, net gains in Flathead County aren't directly comparable to counties that started with higher employment before the pandemic.

"But on the whole, the Flathead has posted strong job gains and that is a good thing," Nelson said.

She anticipated job growth will continue in Flathead County and statewide.

"Montana and the Flathead are expected to make a full recovery from the recession earlier than the rest of the nation," Nelson said.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 406-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.