By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Scott Durden is one of the lucky ones. Laid off at a Eureka lumber mill four years ago, he found another job that kept his family fed until he was called back to work at Owens & Hurst Lumber a year ago.
Despite that good fortune, Durden has no illusions of a secure future in an industry plagued by steadily falling employment.
''I don't feel like the timber industry is very stable,'' he said. ''It just seems like it's day to day.''
The wood products business, where employment dropped almost 5 percent last year, is part of the reason for a steep decline in manufacturing jobs since 2000. That slide is in sharp contrast to the thriving construction industry, where a hearty demand for trained workers to fill high-paying jobs persists, new figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show.
''If an individual can demonstrate skills operating machinery, heavy equipment, there's work and it's good-paying work,'' said Tim Crennan, general manager of a construction company that operates throughout the state.
Overall, Montana escaped the job loss that ravaged much of the nation since the recession began in early 2001. The state is one of just 17 that saw total non-farm job growth during the past three years. Montana's 2.9 percent increase, representing 11,000 new jobs from January 2001 through January 2004, was the seventh best rate in the country.
At the same time, the United States saw a 1.5 percent decline that represented the loss of nearly 2 million jobs.
Montana gained jobs in five industries: construction, leisure and hospitality, natural resources and mining, professional and business services, and miscellaneous services. Jobs were lost in manufacturing, information, government and trade, transportation and utilities.
The most robust industry is construction, where companies added 2,300 jobs that expanded employment in that field by 13 percent. The leisure and hospitality industry, anchored by tourism businesses, saw an 8.1 percent increase that equaled 3,700 jobs.
Professional and business services in such fields as legal, accounting, engineering, research and advertising had more modest growth of about 5 percent, or 1,500 jobs. Natural resources and mining businesses grew 6.7 percent, with resumption of mining by Montana Resources in Butte accounting for much of the 400-job increase.
Manufacturing, still dominated in Montana by the wood products industry, saw the sharpest decrease of nearly 16 percent, a loss of 3,400 jobs over the three years. Information businesses - mostly telecommunications, publishing and broadcasting companies - dropped about 5 percent or 400 jobs.
The broad field of trade, transportation and utilities was down 900 jobs, or about 1 percent, and government jobs were unchanged.
Manufacturing is one of the most volatile sectors, said Chuck Keegan, an economist for the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research. That's because a change in just one employer's operation in the state could have a significant effect on the entire industry, he said.
Manufacturers are so dependent on national and global markets that predicting where the jobs will be is tough, but Keegan believes makers of machinery, equipment and instruments are the best bet in the near future.
While Montana will never be a magnet for hordes of manufacturers, those dependent on natural resources and ones easily relocatable by owners wanting Montana's quality of life could provide a spark, Keegan said.
''I don't think we're ever going to become like some of the midwestern states with an enormous component of our economy in manufacturing, but we have opportunities to expand manufacturing and keep it as a major industry,'' he said.
Almost 37 percent of Montana's manufacturing jobs are found in wood products companies, but that portion was 47 percent a decade ago.
Durden, 38, said he recognizes that trend and is making plans to begin a career in appliance repair. His mill job is, for now, the best he can find without moving.
''To stay here, I worked there,'' he said. ''I'm still going to try to get out of it. There's no retirement and there's the wear and tear on the body.''
While wood products work languishes, those in highway construction, commercial and home builders and specialty trades such as plumbers and electricians, have plenty of work.
''We've managed to be busy in most all of our divisions and certainly look for that trend to continue,'' said Crennan, whose Billings-based JTL Group specializes in highway construction and commercial building site preparation.
But being busy has made finding skilled workers difficult, he said. With an aging work force and seemingly dwindling interest in the construction training among younger workers, companies are having to train their own new hires, Crennan explained.
''There's not a huge pool to draw from,'' he said. ''But people are going to go where the jobs are and where the wages are the best. So we find a way.''
In Hamilton, Pigman Builders has all the work it can handle in what owner Chip Pigman said is a thriving home-building market with no end in sight. ''I don't see any downturn in demand, short of having a recession again,'' he said.
Pigman's company builds about 25 houses a year, sometimes including luxury homes costing more than $1 million. He employs 30 workers and some have been on the payroll for more than 10 years.
But he, like Crennan, has trouble finding the experience and skill he needs in filling openings.
''Younger people just aren't coming into the crafts and trades, whether equipment operators or carpenters,'' he said.
The leisure and hospitality industry in Montana largely translates into the tourism business, and that is one of the state's most powerful economic engines. In 2002, 9.7 million people came to Montana and left behind $1.8 billion.
Betsy Baumgart, head of the state tourism office, said the industry fared well during the recession and even after the terrorist attacks because of what Montana offers.
''Montana is perceived as that safe destination, very family-oriented,'' she said. ''You can come, you can camp, you can get back to nature.''
The bulk of jobs in the sector - almost two-thirds - are in restaurants and bars. Lodging and amusement, gambling and recreation businesses make up most of the remainder.
Doug Day, who owns Cafe Max in Kalispell, said finding trained and experienced workers is the hardest part of his job.
While most of his 16-18 employees have been working for him since the upscale eatery opened seven years ago, he has used interns from the culinary department of Flathead Valley Community College and offered an apprenticeship program to train new employees.
Like most tourism-related businesses in Montana, Day said his restaurant has a seasonal flow that runs heavy in the summer and light in the winter. But he tries to maintain a constant staffing in order to keep the kind of professional and stable help he wants.
Mike Scholz, owner of Buck's T-4 motel and restaurant at Big Sky, said the lodging business is strong, but faces its own labor shortage. He typically increases his 10-member staff to 60 for the peak summer season, but is having increasing problems finding dependable employees for the temporary jobs.
The usual supply of Montana college students disappeared when Montana campuses went to the semester system, resulting in students finishing in the spring and starting in the fall too early for Scholz's prime season. He's had to rely more on European students to fill some openings and keep pace with customer demand.
''The hospitality industry is a growing industry,'' Scholz said. ''The emphasis put on recreation and leisure is growing. The economy is on the upswing. International tourism is strong.''