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Missoula housing and labor shortage leads to record number of vacant city jobs | Local News

In a complete reversal from the depths of the Great Recession just a decade ago, the city of Missoula is overflowing with jobs and wage increases but there are few workers willing to take the offers.

Amid an affordable housing crunch and a nationwide labor shortage, the city is having serious trouble filling job openings and retaining talent.

For everything from whitewater rafting camp counselors to lifeguards and police officers, city managers just can’t get enough qualified applicants even though they’ve boosted wages and offer highly competitive benefits.

Meg Whicher, the recreation manager for the city’s parks and recreation department, is so overwhelmed with trying to keep up with a surge in demand for summer camps that she couldn’t even put an exact number on how many jobs she’s trying to fill.

“We have a million positions open,” she said. “Every type of position you can imagine. If you are into the arts, we have art camp. If you’re into mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater rafting, sports camps, literally there’s something for everyone.”

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Missoula has seen skyrocketing housing prices lately and median wage increases have not nearly kept pace with rising rents. Also, a report from Goldman Sachs researchers found that 5 million Americans left the labor force during the pandemic, including 2.5 million people who retired for good. That has led to a severe labor shortage across the country.

The city is trying to keep up, according to parks and recreation communications manager Becky Goodrich.

“While there are some national indicators the labor shortage is easing, we’re still feeling it at Parks, especially for seasonal staff,” she said. “We’ve raised our starting wage for seasonal intermittent staff by 30% and other seasonal intermittent wages by varying degrees.”

Whicher said that historically, her department has relied on college kids and other people moving to Missoula for the summer for work.

“I don’t have any direct quantitative data that this is what it is, but securing temporary housing is increasingly more difficult,” she said. “And so we’re not seeing college students who want to be in Montana for the summer to come and move here. I think we’re seeing a decrease in the number of applicants out of that.”

Whicher said she’s looking for adults with experience for professional staff jobs. She also needs college kids studying recreation who want hands-on leadership experience and kids age 14 and up for entry-level positions like junior camp counselor.

“What’s really cool is that it’s a great stepping-stone,” she said. “We do have year-round opportunities for employment. Pay is really competitive and you get a wilderness first-aid certification out of it. Two weeks of solid training, accrued sick and vacation time. And it’s a lot of fun. So there’s some really great benefits to it.”

A record number of kids have been signing up for summer camps, so whicher said it’s hard to tell if the labor shortage is the bigger problem or if it’s just the huge jump in demand.

“We’re actually seeing an increase in high school applications because they have aged out of being in the programs (as kids) and now they want to work up,” Whicher said. “But I need some experienced workers, too.”

Eric Seagrave, the city’s aquatics manager, said the number of lifeguards he’s had on staff has dropped from 59 during the busiest week in July of 2008 to 39 last year. So lately, he’s been pulling concession workers who are trained and putting them into lifeguard positions. On top of that, all the infrastructure is getting older so it requires more maintenance.

“Right now we’re hiring anybody over 14 that comes down and we’ll train them,” he said.

Things are no different in other departments in the city. Ginny Merriam, the city’s communications director, has been collecting feedback from human resources managers for the city and shared it with the Missoulian.

One human resources specialist told Merriam that they’ve seen a “drastic decrease in quality applicants across the board” since the pandemic began in part because the city can’t compete against the global market with pay and benefits.

“And our health insurance premium is zero for employees,” Merriam noted, adding that spouses and domestic partners can pay very low-cost premiums.

The city is also having problems retaining top talent. One human resources manager estimated that the city has replaced 75% of its key leaders throughout the pandemic. For example, the city had a real problem hiring a deputy director of development services last year. The city has been seeing constant turnover of maintenance workers, patrol officers, planners and human resources generalists.

The city attorney’s office has had trouble hiring administrative support staff. Those positions used to bring in over 50 applications, Merriam explained, and now they’re happy if they get five or six applications. Then, when an interview is offered, applicants decline to meet.

For the first time ever, one hiring manager recently asked that the certification pay a candidate will receive for having certain qualifications be posted publicly.

“Housing is definitely an issue, but I also feel like candidates have been applying for positions with the city as a bargaining chip for their current jobs,” Merriam said. “A lot of candidates will decline an offered position because they were offered strategic pay to stay in their current position.”

With gas prices rising, Seagrave and Whicher expect more Missoulians to be outside using parks and recreation facilities and camps locally this summer rather than driving on vacation. So things are getting desperate. But Whicher is confident that she can maintain the one thing that she can control, which is the amount of fun that her workers have on the job.

“Talk to any of my employees, and they’re stoked on their job,” she said. “Through some budgetary processes, we’ve worked with the city council to expand our professional staff to have more youth programming, but now we need more folks to work.”

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