Can Missoula’s baby boomers help solve the labor shortage they created?

“One of the things we hear frequently, and across industries, is that businesses are struggling with lack of available talent,” said Missoula Economic Partnership CEO Grant Kier. (Missoula Current file photo)

As the labor market tightens, western Montana’s booming population of retirees may flip the script and help fill some of the jobs that require a specific skillset and benefit from experienced practitioners.

The irony isn’t lost on Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

More than 32,000 Missoula County baby boomers are expected to retire soon, affecting about one-third of the local labor force. (Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964.)

Their loss will be felt in every sector, including the robust tech, construction, real estate and banking industries, Barkey said this week during his biannual statewide report on economic and labor trends.

Barkey called on businesses to “think outside the box: as they confront the labor force challenges that are “likely to persist or worsen in coming years.”

And that thinking includes turning to the very workers whose retirement created the shortage – and baby boomers – and bringing them back on board as part-time employees.

Missoula boasts a rapidly expanding cadre of tech companies – including Submittable, which recently secured $10.5 million to add 150 jobs by next year – whose leaders think outside the box and whose refreshing, creative, inclusive business models attract a diverse workforce.

“This has created a tight labor market that is expected to become tighter if strong job growth continues,” said Grant Kier, Missoula Economic Partnership CEO.

Still, the peak age for workers in Montana will continue to increase, from age 56 in 2011 eventually to age 66 in 2021, said Barkey. By comparison, in 2001, the peak age was 46.

Montana has the distinction of being the oldest Western state, with a median age of nearly 40.

Patrick Barkey, director, UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research

Missoula County, however, continues to log one of the lowest median ages – at 35.4 years – typical for the state’s younger, urban areas with a hometown university.

“Missoula is ridiculously young,” added Barkey. However, Gallatin County’s median age is even younger, at 33.4, a testament to Montana State University’s presence and a local high-tech boom.

Still, the tightening labor market has business leaders concerned.

“One of the things we hear frequently, and across industries, is that businesses are struggling with lack of available talent,” Kier told the Missoula Current. “That’s not unique to Missoula – we’re part of a national trend of low unemployment combined with a large percentage of population at or approaching retirement age.”

One small Missoula business, DataSmart Health Solutions, may employ only a staff of 10, but recently went out of state to find a qualified health insurance tech specialist.

“We operate in a pretty unique industry,” said DataSmart CEO Bernard Khomenko. “It is tight from the point that it is hard to find qualified candidates. But in terms of hiring anyone with experience in the industry, it’s hard in Montana.”

Khomenko said he hopes to hire more tech specialists within the next year. One of his employees, a baby boomer in his early 60s, works part-time and has proved himself to be a good fit. He is a shining example of a successful career professional who can make a difference in a company after retirement from another field.

“He is a part-time, very qualified individual with no experience in the health insurance industry, per se, but with lots of experience in finance and general business,” said Khomenko. “With the skills and knowledge base he brings, we’ve been very happy.”

Barkey suggests that hiring older baby boomers into such part-time positions may be one key solution to filling openings when there are more jobs than qualified candidates.

Other ways of thinking outside the box include adding more flex time, available child care and automation at job sites.

DataSmart Health Solutions CEO Bernard Khomenko

“A ‘tight labor market’ means a job market in which there are as many or more jobs to fill than there are people (particularly people with the relevant skills and experience) seeking to fill those jobs, so talent can be difficult to find,” according to the Missoula Economic Partnership.

Since DataSmart Health Solutionshas no other industry competitors in Missoula, or in Montana for that matter, it will take time for the company to grow and need more qualified technical workers, Khomenko said.

“The more growth, the more qualified candidates there are,” Khomenko added. “There are few companies that do what we do. We have a unique niche within the health insurance field.”

He’s got a bit of a cushion, he said, but eventually will go hunting for qualified workers.

For Khomenko and others, ready-and-willing baby boomers may just help buck the trend of the tightening labor market.