Firms in Northwest Struggle to Find Workers Employers in many parts of the West are facing record low unemployment levels. They are having to raise wages and become more creative in how they attract new employees. In states like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, unemployment is hovering around 2 and 3 percent.

Firms in Northwest Struggle to Find Workers

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A tight labor market can be an employer's nightmare. That's the case right now in many Western states, including Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Here's Hope Stockwell of Montana Public Radio.

HOPE STOCKWELL: Dave McClain(ph) manages a locally owned home improvement store in Helena, Montana's growing commercial district. In 14 years, he says it's never been this bad.

Mr. DAVE McCLAIN (Store Owner): I pretty much look constantly for employees. I interview four days a week. Some days, I don't have anybody come, some days I have one or two.

STOCKWELL: From where McClain stands, in front of his store, he can watch Helena's economy grow.

Mr. McCLAIN: Right out of the front of the store is - we look upon Lowe's just opened last fall. They're a major competitor, obviously.

STOCKWELL: Not only for business, but those employees that McClain is having such a tough time finding.

STOCKWELL: Across from Lowe's, an army of construction workers builds more new stores, including a large sporting goods business and two restaurants. Despite recent problems in the national real estate market, construction here is still keeping a strong pace. Help-wanted signs are easy to spot around Helena.

Mr. TYLER TURNER (Economist, Montana State Department of Labor and Industry): There's another hiring sign.

STOCKWELL: Godfather's Pizza?

Economist Tyler Turner works for the State Department of Labor and Industry. He says he finds the signs reassuring because they validate the numbers that he's crunching in his office. They show most of Montana's bigger cities at about 2 percent unemployment.

Mr. TURNER: Particularly, businesses that have or you would expect to have high turnovers in employees, you've seen almost a continual advertisement for new workers. They're not able to either attract the new workers that they need or they're losing workers to other businesses who are offering more money. It just is this never-ending cycle.

STOCKWELL: Turner says it's largely the result of the baby boomers moving west. Over the last 15 years or so, they've built a demand for services and expanded the workforce. Now they're getting ready to retire. And they have the money to retire early if they want to.

Mr. TURNER: They're much better off than their parents were. And so the need to work isn't nearly as strong in their generation. And when they opt out, it's different than when their parents opted out because they have a much higher skill set, more knowledge. And so the deficit is really much larger than you would see in past generations.

STOCKWELL: On top of that, the boomers didn't have as many kids as their parents, so the next generation of fast food workers and store clerks is significantly smaller. Turner says some businesses may use technology to help fill the gap.

One McDonald's in Eastern Montana has outsourced its drive-thru to a phone service in Texas. And despite the current contentious debate about immigration, Turner says employers are looking at foreign workers as an answer.

Coffee shop and creperie owner Jeff Spurlin(ph) knows a business that's hiring workers from eastern Europe already.

Mr. JEFF SPURLIN (Coffee Shop and Creperie Owner): It makes me sad that we're forced to that.

STOCKWELL: Still, Spurlin is thinking about doing the same things. The foreign job service wouldn't cost him anything and he really needs the help.

Mr. SPURLIN: This weekend, especially, we're drastically short. We'll have about half of what it takes to handle the volume of this month. We'll be turning away customers because of the wait.

STOCKWELL: Spurlin's local help-wanted ads only had one response, and that person just quit. Spurlin says paying $6.50 an hour to start, he can't compete with big chains that offer more. Even pizza delivery drivers here can earn $10 an hour plus money for gas. Spurlin says he's raised his wages some, but he had to raise his prices too. And he says he can only push that so far before customers take their business elsewhere.

For NPR News, I'm Hope Stockwell in Helena, Montana.

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