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Montana Chamber says governors return-to-work plan gives businesses boost of confidence

| May 12, 2021 1:00 AM

Montana businesses are applauding Governor Gianforte’s recent “Return-to-Work Bonus” initiative. The plan is bold, innovative and a welcome bump to our economic recovery.

Early last winter, the Montana Chamber Board, led by Chairman Paul Hopfauf of Montana-Dakota Utilities, a subsidiary of MDU Resources Group, Inc., met with Montana's congressional delegation to express concerns about new labor challenges beginning to develop as businesses were navigating through the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Recently, moderate concern has grown to a near crisis as more "help wanted" signs are showing up in storefronts across the state. As we enter Montana's busy summer months, businesses that were forced to close or scale back operations because of COVID-19 restrictions are facing closures again. But this time, it's due to a shortage of employees- a bitter setback for what's surely going to be one of the busiest tourist seasons on record.

Even before the pandemic, Montana has long struggled with workforce-related challenges.

In late 2019, the Montana Chamber surveyed nearly 800 businesses asking them to share their workforce challenges and priorities. A startling 36 percent of the respondents reported turning down growth opportunities due to workforce challenges. Business leaders consistently identify a lack of qualified workers as the number one hurdle to growth.

The results also shed light on proposed solutions like educating K-12 students with basic business economic principles and increasing career awareness. Additional feedback revealed support for educating youth on the importance of soft skills like problem-solving and critical thinking.

Guided by our strategic plan, Envision 2026, the Montana Chamber focuses on four objectives that influence our work: Workforce Development. Business Climate. Entrepreneurship. Infrastructure. These four pillars lay the foundation for our mission to champion a business-friendly economy.

Workforce development is a priority identified by businesses across all industries. The Montana Chamber Foundation is working to address this long-term challenge by bringing Youth Entrepreneurs (YE) into the Treasure State. YE is a nationally recognized program that develops employability traits and instills economic and entrepreneurial principles in our future workforce. Over the last 4 years, Youth Entrepreneurs in Montana has grown from 4 schools in 6 communities to 41 schools in 36 communities.

It's unlikely that Montana's workforce challenges will go away anytime soon but the Montana Chamber Foundation will continue to focus on longer-term, fundamental solutions to workforce development.

In the meantime, Governor Gianforte’s return-to-work incentives are more than a welcome bump to businesses struggling to fill their payroll. Watch as other states with similar labor challenges follow Montana's lead.

Todd O'Hair is the President/CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce.