Employers get creative in finding local workers

September 30—In the face of ongoing hiring challenges, local employers across all sectors are taking creative steps to break down barriers in hiring processes and tap qualified, skilled candidates.

On Wednesday, more than 70 employers attended the Northwest Montana Jobs and Opportunity Fair at the Flathead County Fairgrounds, with companies from healthcare, education, manufacturing, from hospitality, leisure, retail, restaurants, finance and real estate in hopes of connecting with job seekers.

With an unemployment rate of around 2.8% in the state, companies at the job fair confirmed that the hiring market remains tight.

Bryan LaFontaine, director of catering at Averill Hospitality, said lack of housing is among the barriers facing the local workforce. He said that over the past year, about 50 potential candidates have turned down job offers because they couldn’t find affordable housing.

“There aren’t enough applicants in the Valley, and there are a lot of people who want to come here, but there just aren’t enough housing options,” LaFontaine said.

Logan Crocker, resort manager at Averill Hospitality, noted the company is taking matters into its own hands by building employee housing on an 80-acre lot in Whitefish, with around 250 to 500 rooms.

Similarly, Blacktail Mountain Ski Area has a group of cabins for rent to employees who need accommodation.

“It’s terrifying, but we think it’s what we need to do,” said Ann Whiting, a rep for Blacktail. “Part of the way we hire now is to help people so they can find housing.”

Whiting made it part of his job to create and maintain a housing database for potential employees.

Another challenge for employers is filling entry-level positions. Logan Health takes steps to provide candidates with on-the-job training and certifications. Since many candidates don’t have access to the proper training, Christy Van Slake, talent acquisition partner at Logan Health, said being able to provide training has “significantly increased employment.”

“We train for CNA (certified nursing assistant), sterile processing, and two months ago we just launched RMA (registered medical assistant) training,” Van Slake said.

While some form of prior medical experience is an expectation, Van Slake added, “We don’t necessarily require a ton of experience. We want to train them, so on their first day on the job, they start training and get paid for it.”

Along with the training, Van Slake said they offer signing bonuses for certain positions and use funds from the Care in Montana program launched by the state last year. The program covers up to $12,500 in moving expenses for those who accept healthcare jobs in Montana. So far, Logan Health has used about $250,000 of the $4 million allocated to relocate nurses, surgical technicians, EMTs and paramedics.

“We had over 40 Physician Assistant positions open about two months ago and now we’re down to five,” Van Slake said.

Karla Therrien, human resources generalist for the Columbia Falls School District, said their industry’s biggest problem is that the district’s budget is dependent on public funds.

“We don’t have a product to sell where we could raise prices. Our budget is fixed and we don’t have a lot of fluctuation,” she said.

While many applicants are drawn to the prospect of working with children and the school schedule, Therrien said she understands the importance of aligning salaries with the cost of living.

Weyerhaeuser representatives at the fair said Covid made hiring difficult and the return to in-person hiring helped the company make hiring more efficient.

EMPLOYERS AND potential employees said Covid has transformed job search culture as Zoom interviews are more common, candidates are more transparent about their salary expectations and remote working is more popular than ever.

Many job seekers at the fair said they had no industry preference, but several said they were looking for full-time work.

Colton Hughes, 20, said he hopes to work as an entertainer in the future and attended the fair hoping to find a job that will save him money for higher education.

Another participant, Seth Buckman, 34, is an Army veteran with experience working with professional drag racing teams and PROOF Research, a local gun tech company. Buckman attends Flathead Valley Community College for small business management and hopes to learn the intricacies of business development and leadership in any job he accepts.

Health insurance is the No. 1 priority for Ben Fulford, 39, who is seeking full-time employment.

“I have a wife and two kids and we use health insurance a lot, especially vision and dental,” he said. “When you take your kids out twice a year, it can get really expensive. In fact, I turned down a number of jobs because they didn’t offer health insurance, even though it was great jobs.”

After working in the semiconductor industry for 13 years, Fulford is exploring other industries and the incentives of new businesses in the Valley.

The job fair was organized by Job Service Kalispell, Daily Inter Lake, Workforce Flathead, Flathead Valley Community College and Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

Reporter Summer Zalesky can be reached at szalesky@dailyinterlake.com

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