From craft alcoholic beverage production to ammunition assembly to churning out prefinished house siding, manufacturing businesses in Missoula are diverse and growing. And they are part of a statewide trend of growth in the industry.
“Every manufacturer that I know of is hiring or growing,” said Shane Cantrell, a business adviser for the Montana State University’s Manufacturing Extension Center. “I don’t know of any that are cutting back. Everyone is talking about hiring five to 10 people in the next two to three years or expanding their facility or purchasing new equipment or adding automation.”
According to a new report from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, manufacturing employment has grown much faster in Montana than the U.S. overall since the Great Recession. Montana manufacturing employment increased from 19,841 jobs in 2010 to 23,896 jobs in 2016, a jump of 20.4 percent. The national increase in manufacturing jobs was 8.3 percent in the same time frame, from 12.1 million workers to 13.1 million.
“The strong growth in Montana manufacturing employment occurred despite permanent closures in the paper and wood products industries,” wrote Todd Morgan, an economist at BBER. “Employment in the wood and paper products industries decreased from more than 3,200 in 2010 to about 3,000 in 2016, a decline of 7.2 percent. Employment in all the other components of Montana manufacturing increased from 16,598 in 2010 to 20,885 in 2016, an increase of nearly 26 percent.”
Morgan worked with economists Paul Polzin and Paddy Fleming on the report, which also found that many national and multi-national corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline, Boeing and Applied Materials made acquisitions in the state in the last decade.
The two sectors in Montana with the most significant employment growth were fabricated metals, which added more than 1,200 jobs (65 percent growth) and alcoholic beverage producers that added 580 jobs (75 percent growth). After that, non-metallic mineral products grew by 500 employees (53 percent growth) and computer and electronics manufacturers added about 390 jobs (89 percent growth).
The production of alcoholic beverages is a briskly expanding industry in Montana. Distilleries, wineries (including cideries) and breweries combined employed 950 people in 2016, up from 267 in 2011. Breweries added the most workers at 514. In 2016, there were 752 workers in breweries and 154 in distilleries. The growth in alcoholic beverage manufacturing was mostly due to new firms rather than growth in existing firms, however several existing breweries and distilleries are planning for expansion. At least three new alcoholic beverage producers are planning on opening in Missoula in 2018: Gild Brewing on the Hip Strip, Confux Brewing downtown and Bryce Distillery, an absinthe distillery downtown. The total number of alcoholic beverage producers increased from 25 in 2010 to 87 in 2016, and that number is closer to 100 in 2018.
Cantrell holds a series of workshops with local business leaders to help them increase efficiency and grow, among other things.
“Every manufacturing job in Montana creates over 2.5 other jobs,” he explained. “What’s good for manufacturing is good for the whole economy. We want to see how we can collaborate more effectively to help each other out.”
Jesse Ramos, a Missoula city council member, also attended the meeting. He believes the city needs to cut red tape, reduce regulations and focus on creating more manufacturing jobs rather than enticing businesses that create service jobs.
“The city council has been talking about spending money to help build a big conference center downtown (at the Riverfront Triangle), but those are service jobs,” he said. “Those are waiters and hotel staff. I would rather have one manufacturing job than three service-oriented jobs.”
The fastest-growing subcategories of fabricated metal products manufacturing were small arms production and architectural and structural metals production. Small arms manufacturing increased from 148 workers in 2010 to 381 in 2015 throughout the state. Many ammunition makers are located in the Flathead Valley and Bitterroot Valley.
According to several studies and surveys, manufacturers in the U.S. and Montana continue to struggle with attracting a qualified workforce and retaining skilled workers, who are expensive to train. In Missoula, where the unemployment rate is hovering around an extremely low 3.5 percent, it’s getting harder for these firms to fill positions like machinists.
Jenni Graff of the Missoula Economic Partnership recently put together the results of a survey of manufacturers that got 25 responses locally.
“78 percent said that pay or salary was probably in the top three of their greatest barriers (to growth),” she said. “The next thing was work ethic and then paid time off. Then as far as attracting new talent, that labor-ready talent, pay was the number one issue followed closely by health care benefits and then on-the-job advancement opportunities.”
Cantrell agreed that the feedback he hears most often from manufacturers is they can’t find workers. That should be good news to anyone looking for a relatively high-paying career, especially if college isn’t an option.
“Some of these positions are highly skilled, but some are positions where they don’t even have to have a high school degree and they can be trained internally,” he said.