Montana Chamber of Commerce representatives heard from local leaders in Havre Tuesday as part of a state tour, with housing and finding workers two hot topics in the discussion.
Chamber President and CEO Webb Brown and Government Relations Director Jon Bennion held the meeting in Havre.
Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Debbie Vandeberg told the two that the Havre area has been fortunate in the last few years of recession and slow recovery.
“We’re not on the national trend, ” she said, adding that the area does face challenges.
Vandeberg said one major benefit to the area has been increased tourism, and increased visits by Canadians coming to the area.
One of the challenges is the potential impacts of oilfield development in the Bakken, and Havre leaders are setting up meetings to plan for that, she said.
Another is a shortage of housing.
“It is dramatic. It is painfully dramatic, ” Vandeberg said.
While houses are available on the market, people looking for transitional housing like quality apartments or condos are finding very little, she said.
A topic at the meeting was improvements in the state’s Workers’ Compensation program enacted by the state Legislature. Brown said much work still needs to be done, including improving safety — a main push by the Chamber, he said — the situation has improved.
State Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, who is running unopposed in this year’s primary but will face Democrat Brenda Skornogoski of Havre in the general election, said a common problem she is hearing about from business owners is finding quality workers who will stay in a position.
“They can’t get good help around here, ” Hansen said.
“Our unemployment rates are down, but there are still jobs out there, ” she said. “It’s not revolving, it’s a spinning door in and out of business, and it’s not just entry level positions at the hotels, it’s the hospital …. ”
“It’s right here at the co-op, ” Hill County Electric and Triangle Communications manager Rick Stevens said. “We have the same problem. ”
Hansen said she believes the federal government is creating part of, or at least exacerbating the problem. People can make more money on unemployment than they can taking jobs in Havre, and the federal extensions of unemployment is increasing the problem.
Brown said he has heard that in many areas.
Hansen said other programs, such as the health care reform allowing people to stay on their parent’s health insurance until they are 26, increases the issue. Parents have no motivation to get their children out of the house, she said.
She said the university system seems to be addressing the issue of creating more workers, including focusing on two-year programs. But, she said, perhaps the whole idea of four-year programs should be looked at. People might be able to get the skills they need and are looking for in 2½ or three years, she said.
“Is the concept of generational education classes really useful in the grand scheme of building workers who do things? ” she asked.
Vandeberg said she thinks those classes are needed. Workers need soft skills, such as being able to talk and write, as well as technical skills.
“If they can’t talk when they graduate from high school or college, they aren’t going to get a job, ” she said.