The president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce said Monday he believes the state could be on the cusp of economic recovery, and that now is the time for businesses to start moving forward.
“I don’t think we’re going to continue to see high unemployment in this state, ” Chamber President Webb Brown said during a meeting in Havre, adding, “We didn’t get hit as bad as the rest of the country because we are a little more careful here. ”
Brown was in Havre to talk to residents about business and economic issues in a tour of the state. He said the state Chamber realizes there is more to Montana business than just in Helena, and he tries to talk to people around the state to let them know what the Chamber is doing and to find out what is happening in their communities.
His comment on the economic recovery was in response to a question from Max Vogel of US Bank, who asked if Brown believes the worst of the recession is yet to come in Montana.
Brown said Montana’s comparatively better condition — such as unemployment rates in the 7-percent range rather than 9-percent or 10-percent range — probably stems from Montana’s high level of natural resource industries, such as agriculture, oil and gas and mining, along with a generally conservative nature.
He said businesses in the state seem to be willing to hire more workers, but more need to step up.
“At some point, somebody’s got to step ahead …, ” he said. “If we’re on the cusp, now really is the spot for us to step ahead and be courageous, ” not to take risks, but to make positive actions.
Joe Von Stein of US Bank said one of the major issues in the area seems to be a problem finding people to take jobs — a lack of a qualified work force.
Susan Brurud of Bright Ideas Advertising agreed. She said a primary reason she closed her bridal shop was because she couldn’t keep qualified workers.
“It got to the point where it just wasn’t worth it any more, ” she said.
Webb said he is hearing of the same problem across the state, from Eureka to Red Lodge. One business in Missoula had 16 applicants for 40 positions, in the $12- to $15-an-hour range, he said.
“There seems to be a complete dichotomy …, ” he said. “You hear the concern about jobs, jobs jobs on the one hand. … There is some concern about the economy, but there seems to be people willing to hire but they can’t fill the positions.
Brown said he thinks one factor causing that is the federal government continuing to extend unemployment benefits. While the base, the safety net, should remain there, it should not be extended.
“So we are going to fight as hard as we can, so it won’t be extended again, ” he said.
Brurud agreed. That at least would fill jobs in service industry such as fast food restaurants, she said.
“When you’re paying them more to work than not to work, there’s no incentive, ” she said.
Kev Campbell of Hill County Electric-Triangle Communications said that the cooperative is not having troubles filling positions. It has many openings, but sees many applicants, including through colleges in the state,
“And we retain them, ” she added.
Brown also cited some work in the last legislative session, including the revamping of the state Worker’s Compensation program, rewriting the state medical marijuana laws and working to reduce or prevent lawsuits against businesses.
He said the estimated savings for businesses through actions by or support from the Chamber is $1,404 per employee per year.
With the legislative session done until 2013, a main focus of the state Chamber now is on federal issues, he said.
Brown said the Chamber sponsors many programs to aid businesses, including sponsoring upcoming trips to areas such as China and Brazil to holding workshops, seminars and webinars on issues like medical marijuana laws, workers safety, insurance, high school programs and a college to teach people how to campaign for election cleanly and effectively.
The Chamber is working on upgrading its website, as well as jumping into social media like Twitter and Facebook, he said.
“We consider ourselves an information source, ” Brown said.