Business leaders: Missoula economy peppered with advantages, challenges

Michelle Huie, founder and president of Vim & Vigor in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Growth in Missoula’s tech and medical industries have helped push the median wage higher over the past few years, making it easier for some workers to make ends meet and stay in Montana.

At the same time, the cost of housing continues to climb, and that’s challenging Missoula’s most promising and best-paying companies as they vie to keep employees.

“I recently lost someone who moved to Austin, and the one reason was because of housing,” said Michelle Huie, founder and president of Vim & Vigr. “A lot of people we pay above the average salary, and even with that it’s difficult. I hear it all the time from people within my company.”

As Missoula’s ever-expanding class of upstarts look to grow and compete on the national stage, they continue to face new challenges along the way, a panel of business leaders told members of City Club Missoula on Monday.

For some firms, it’s Montana’s shortage of investment funds, which are needed to take a business to the next level. For others, it’s retaining local employees who are courted by established firms in larger metros where the pay is higher.

And for another group, it may be the cost of air fare. Or it may boil down to Missoula’s tight housing market.

“Anecdotally, I still believe the biggest impact we have on housing prices here is that we have this extraordinary place and a limited number of houses,” said Grant Kier, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership.

“We have to be sensitive about all the forces that are at play that define what housing costs look like here. It’s a real issue and it’s one none of us can afford to ignore if we want to think carefully about our economy moving forward.”

The cost of housing has wedged it’s way into nearly every local social conversation, including the future of Missoula’s economy. The city this week will unveil a new housing policy expected to address the issue, and local business leaders will be among those who are watching for results.

While that issue plays out in the coming months and years, Missoula’s emerging economy and the partnerships it has created have helped move the dial on wages. Over the past few years, the average median wage has increased by nearly 4 percent.

That could have a positive impact on recruitment.

“There is a demand for higher level talent, and there’s been some recent programs at the university (of Montana) partnering with industry to help facilitate that, where folks coming out of school walk into some pretty good-paying jobs,” said Joe Fanguy, vice president of strategic development for Blackfoot.

Fanny Diaz, co-founder and COO of DermaXon in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Over the past few years, 24 companies in Missoula have used the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund program to create 532 jobs that now pay $20.6 million annually in new wages. Another 500 jobs are expected to come online in the next few years.

To receive the highest funding award, those jobs must pay more than the median wage in Missoula County, which stands at $19.65 an hour. Some pay even more, though it may not be enough to fend off outside firms that often compete for the same pool of skilled workers.

As one panelist said, you can’t go find another lab chemist on the corner.

“We have a very good team and very skilled people, but we’ve been struggling trying to retain talent here in Missoula,” said Fanny Diaz, the COO and co-founder of DermaXon.

“But the survival instinct of being in Missoula was motivating for us to start our own company. Now we’re attached to the people we work with and all these amazing students, and we really want to create more job opportunities and retain the talent here.”

If that talent isn’t available, Missoula firms do look to the larger metros to fill skilled vacancies. That comes with pros and cons, but it’s part of doing business in Missoula, said Huie.

“If we’re unable to find someone in Missoula to handle a particular job, you have remote employees, and they may live in Portland and Seattle, and you have to pay them Portland or Seattle wages,” she said. “The fact that there’s an open forum of talent in our region can also increase wages for people in Missoula as well.”