Low unemployment rate good for everyone — except temp agencies

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A lift attendant works at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Ski resort officials say hiring seasonal workers hasn’t been an issue this winter. “We’re just fortunate in the fact that we have so many returning employees,” said spokeswoman Riley Polumbus. (Daily Inter Lake file)

Montana’s unemployment rate has been declining for the last seven years, mirroring a nationwide trend. The creep toward full employment is good for almost everyone, but puts a paradoxical squeeze on one entity in particular: temporary employment agencies.

This holiday season, some temporary employment agencies are having to pour more and more resources into recruiting to procure enough candidates to fill the annual high-tide of clients looking for workers.

“Anytime the unemployment rate is low, we are going to feel the pain,” said Jordan Nelson, the Kalispell franchise owner of local temp agency Express Employment Professionals.

The Montana unemployment rate now rests at 3.9 percent, down from a high of 7.4 percent in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nelson said when times get tight, employers are also much more likely to hang on to an employee on a permanent basis if they like them, because they can’t always be sure a temporary replacement will be readily available.

That’s good for candidates looking for work in the valley, but also further diminishes the pool his agency has to fill positions. He said contracts are structured to help incentivize all parties to hire workers on a permanent basis, but over the long term fewer people looking for work does make their job more difficult.

Nelson’s company hires folks to work in a variety of different jobs, from entry-level clerical or administrative work to entry-level construction to skilled industrial labor. He said his agency has found it most difficult to find a big enough pool of people willing to work in the construction sector, both in entry-level and skilled positions.

He attributes that difficulty to the wealth of construction going on throughout the Flathead Valley. When the business is boom and bust he’s able to place and replace workers on demand, but when companies hire placements full-time and come back for more, Nelson feels the effects of the diminished temporary labor pool.

“They are staying busy, which is positive for the community,” Nelson said.

One shift his agency has instituted is focusing on recruitment techniques that most reliably lead to quality employees, like increasing incentives for referrals from past employees. He said those employees have a higher likelihood to be hard workers and fulfill his client’s expectations.

They also run promotions, like this year’s “holiday hiring drive.” Express Employment Professionals is contributing $10 to the Flathead Food Bank for every worker they place during the holiday season. Last year, they placed 37 workers in jobs during the period and this year they are shooting for 40, Nelson said. The promotion runs through Jan. 1.

The Flathead Valley has long been a paradise for seasonal laborers, and Nelson said those folks often find refuge with his agency during the shoulder seasons, after summer work has wrapped up and before work at regional winter tourist destinations like Whitefish Mountain Resort has begun.

Nelson said that while they shoot to get people hired permanently as often as possible, they are also happy to help people that are just trying to pay bills during the interim period between their summer and winter jobs.

Despite the declining unemployment rates and increasing likelihood of a permanent job through a temp agency, the unique lifestyle seasonal workers enjoy continues to cause applicants to flock to places like Whitefish Mountain for holiday and winter work.

Riley Polumbus, public relations manager for the ski resort, thinks the wealth of summer-only work opportunities has insulated the mountain’s human resources team from any difficulties of fishing from an under-stocked pool.

“We are just fortunate in the fact that we have so many returning employees,” Polumbus said. “We’re in a good spot being located where there are lots of seasonal workers that have summer positions in the Park Service, Forest Service, other things.”

The availability of seasonal work in the summer and winter allows people to work for several months in the summer and several in the winter and call the Flathead home year-round.

She said the lifestyle of working on a ski mountain is something that brings many employees back year after year, and that certainly helps them fill their ranks. The opportunity for a free ski pass doesn’t hurt either, she said.

Polumbus said they also draw from a pool of international students who help the resort fill spots that locals often don’t express much interest in, like housekeeping positions at the mountain’s overnight resorts. This year they have a pool of about 20 international students, which is close to their annual average, Polumbus said.

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com.

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