Help wanted signs all over town
On a busy morning in early June at the Big Sky Conoco, owners Renae and Steve Schumacher worked the store’s two registers as a steady stream of customers lined up to purchase items they need to start their day. For local business owners, the start of the summer season comes with the challenge of finding qualified employees to do everything from wrangling horses to managing the morning stampede at the Conoco.
Renae often pulls a morning shift on the register, and said, “If my husband has to be with me, we’re usually filling gaps.”
Noticeable gaps between what local employers need and what the local workforce pool can provide are typical this time of year, especially when it comes to hiring skilled workers like those Schumacher needs to run the registers and Sliders Deli inside the Conoco. Luckily, said Schumacher, “I do have a pretty good-sized collection of old employees who can come fill-in. I try to do my best to find new help.”
Foreign workers here on J1 visas—like those from Romania and Poland with solid English skills—Schumacher readily employs. They help her fill the gaps, which have now n∑arrowed down for the Conoco.
“Right now, I’m set pretty good,” said Schumacher, adding she could probably use one more employee to round out her summer staff.
In mid-June, Workforce Consultant Lindsey Mitchell with the Job Service in Bozeman, said, “Specific to our office, we currently have 47 open positions posted, from 11 employers in Big Sky. Building relationships with employers is a large contributor to our ability to help grow their businesses, at the same time allowing us to connect job seekers to the opportunities that are available to join the workforce.”
Mitchell added, “The biggest challenge we hear from employers in the area is that they don’t have enough highly skilled workers for their operations.”
Recently, Lone Mountain Ranch posted a want ad in search of a naturalist with a “background in guiding front country trips with groups of five or more.”
Ryan Kunz, general manager at Lone Mountain Ranch, said filling positions like this and others has gotten more difficult lately.
“I feel like the town has grown with more businesses and we’re much busier than we’ve been,” said Kunz, who oversees around 120 employees. “We have a longer season, and a lot of local staffers that we pull from have been diluted into all these businesses. It’s definitely challenging.”
Even so, said Kunz, “We’re sitting pretty well on the ranch. We saw this coming and planned for it.”
The help wanted ad looking for a naturalist noted there’s no more room in the ranch’s employee housing and that’s something employers face throughout the community.
The Big Sky Conoco offers some, but not enough to meet demand and same goes for Lone Mountain Ranch.
“There’s a serious employee housing demand and issues,” said Kunz. “We’re starting to realize and work on that. But we’re kind of behind the eight ball as a community. And it’s definitely putting pressure on small businesses.”
“The opportunity of getting staff from Bozeman is harder and harder,” continued Kunz. “Employee housing and staffing—You can talk to any manager and they’ll talk to you for hours about it.”
In addition to the housing shortage, said Kunz, the challenge of filling all available positions in Big Sky is aggravated by “a confluence of a few things.”
For instance, there’s the record low-unemployment in Gallatin County and beyond on the national level. Then there’s the booming neighbor to the north—Bozeman—where housing isn’t cheap but there’s more of it.
Julie Grimm-Lisk with Jake’s Horses is currently looking for wranglers to hire and she’s recruiting them from as far away as Texas. She said when one wrangler showed up from Austin, his roommate-to-be changed his mind suddenly this new employee at Jake’s didn’t have a place to live. He’s since found a less-than-ideal spot in a condo with a bunch of other guys, making him one of the lucky ones.
“It can be a huge challenge for them to make it work,” said Grimm-Lisk of the 10 wranglers she hires to manage around 115 horses and lead group rides.
Even in the face of the ongoing housing crisis, all kinds of applicants vie for a chance to work for Jake’s, said Grimm-Lisk.
“I do get a lot of people who just want to be a cowboy,” she said, explaining how those with the right skills know they have something to market. Grimm-Lisk recruits them from equine programs like the one at Montana State University.
“I tend to hire a lot of university students and kids who are in school and that fits with their schedule,” said Grimm-Lisk, who steers new hires to resources like the Big Sky Housing Network on Facebook so they can find a decent place to unfurl their bed roll.
Grimm-Lisk said she’s looking to hire two more wranglers capable of leading horse trips with as many as eight guests. The sooner qualified candidates gallop into her office the better because even though it’s not yet July, “We’re already rocking and rolling.”