MISSOULA — Before the summer season even began, Iron Horse chef and general manager Todd Engel sat down with his cooks and gave them a raise, knowing that the restaurant’s staffing struggles were not going away any time soon.

“We’re just pushing things to the brink,” Engel said. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I’ve never had it be this hard.”

Staffing challenges at the downtown Missoula restaurant have persisted this fall — despite an influx of students returning to the University of Montana — with some positions remaining unfilled and Engel having to additionally replace summer employees who have left.

Many of his current employees work multiple positions and double shifts, and Engel doesn’t have the employees to take on large gatherings or extra events. Due to short staffing, the restaurant now closes on Mondays, like many other restaurants in town that have had to cut their hours. Engel often finds himself busing tables.

“Everybody thought it was going to change once the kids came back [to] the university, and it has somewhat, but not for the key points that we need in the restaurant industry,” he said.

The Iron Horse is one of many businesses in Missoula struggling to find enough workers to fill crucial positions this year year. And Missoula’s staffing struggles track with a statewide trend.

This graphic in the Montana Department of Labor & Industry’s Labor Day Report highlights the dramatic increase in job openings in the state within the past couple of years. Credit: Montana Department of Labor & Industry

According to the Montana Department of Labor & Industry’s 2022 Montana Labor Day Report, the state’s labor force participation rate grew to 62.7% in August, slightly higher than the national average, with nearly 84% of Montanans between the ages of 25 and 54 working or looking for work.

But despite Montana’s unemployment rate of 2.8% as of August — one of the state’s lowest unemployment rates since data collection began in 1976 — and an above-average labor force participation, Montana’s workforce can’t keep up with the sheer number of unfilled jobs.

In 2021, the state added a record 19,568 jobs, according to the Labor Day Report. Since the second half of last year, the number of unfilled jobs has remained above 40,000 each month, with workers quitting jobs contributing to half of the openings in 2022.

As of July 2022, Missoula County had an unemployment rate of 2.6% (or about 1,726 unemployed workers), but there are currently more than two jobs available for each unemployed worker, according to Jessica Nelson, public information officer for the Department of Labor & Industry.

“The primary reason for Montana’s current worker shortage is twofold. Very fast growth has created a lot of job opportunity and job openings,” Nelson said. “Demographically, Montana’s population has not grown as quickly, largely due to its aging population. Retirement continues to be the primary reason that workers exit the labor force.”

But as the cost of living rises in Montana communities, some retirees are returning to the labor force to supplement their income.

Retirees are one demographic represented at Missoula retailer T.J. Maxx, whose employees range in age from teenagers to octogenarians, according to general manager Melissa Linville.

But high school and college students who historically filled jobs are becoming a much smaller slice of the workforce. 

“I think more college students are starting to focus on school and not necessarily doing the school-and-work thing,” Linville said. “I’ve definitely noticed college students not coming back to work as much.”

Linville thinks more college students are being supported by family members or finding it difficult to balance work with school. Many, too, may also be reevaluating their priorities and opting not to work if they don’t need the income.

“There’s so many options out there,” Linville said. “You literally can have your pick of what you want to do, what you want to try. I do feel like people have a little bit more financial stability longer from their parents than when I was in college. I feel like that has adapted the mindset.”

“I think more college students are starting to focus on school and not necessarily doing the school-and-work thing.”

Missoula T.J. Maxx general manager Melissa Linville

T.J. Maxx, like many businesses, has had to offer flexibility in workers’ schedules and adapt to the shortages. Bozeman’s T.J. Maxx had to abbreviate its hours, and the Missoula location could not keep its fitting rooms open for a while, Linville said.  

Throughout the past few months and during most of the pandemic, Linville said, there would be bursts of people applying for positions, and then the flow of applicants would dry up.

To help fill shortages, T.J. Maxx has partnered with community resources like Missoula Job Service, high schools, senior centers, the university, and Missoula College. Store representatives appeared at a Missoula Job Service hiring fair, along with more than 80 other local businesses, on Sept. 27. 

“You definitely have to work for your applicant flow,” Linville said. “They just don’t come like they used to.”

Some Missoula businesses have not been affected as badly by workforce shortages, such as WinCo Foods. According to store manager Shawn Early, the Missoula store’s staffing has been steady, unlike the Bozeman location, which is currently down 20 workers.

Early thinks his store has had fewer problems with staffing because WinCo offers benefits for employees working 25 or more hours a week, making it an attractive option for part-timers.  

While many workplaces, especially extremely understaffed fast-food chain restaurants, had to advertise higher wages to attract job applicants over the summer, WinCo had already upped its wages within six months of its February 2021 opening as local housing prices soared. 

“They kind of underestimated how much the cost of living was rising,” Early said. 

Missoula’s lack of affordable housing also has exacerbated the worker shortage. At the Iron Horse, Engel lost one of his best dishwashers when the employee’s rent was raised significantly, forcing him to move to Arizona to live with family.

“He was a great worker,” Engel said. “Everybody loved him. He kicked butt, and we lost him because he couldn’t afford to live here.”

Engel doesn’t foresee his staffing troubles easing in the future, as the restaurant remains busy with tourists and people moving to town with money to spend.

Linville said that employers will have to be patient and flexible as the staffing crunch continues.

“You just have to be patient,” she said. “I feel things will neutralize. Things will get to a point to where there’s a new normal or a semi-old normal. But I think things have changed from the past. You just have to be ready to continue adapting.”  

In-depth, independent reporting on the stories impacting your community from reporters who know your town.

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

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Courtney Brockman is an independent writer living in Missoula. She graduated from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has worked for her alma mater as a writer and editor. She is passionate about traveling, creating, connecting with people, and telling the important stories affecting a community.