Patrick Barkey, director of the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, dropped a surprising figure Thursday.
Among Montana’s 56 counties, Butte-Silver Bow ranks number two in average earnings per job, coming in at $52,912 per job, the economist said.
Those looking to earn a living wage in Butte might interpret the number as good news.
But Barkey told The Montana Standard that the earnings number is skewed upward dramatically by the county’s mining industry, proving what many already know: mining continues to be a heavy hitter in Butte’s economy, representing about 41 percent of the county’s economic activity.
Barkey and other economic leaders spoke to an audience of about 200 people Thursday, who gathered Uptown in the Northwestern Energy building on Park Street for the Annual Economic Outlook Series. The seminar travels to numerous locations around the state each year and is put on by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
Barkey gave a review of the Butte-Silver Bow economy and also spoke on the local outlook for 2018.
Since 2007, several industries have grown in Butte-Silver Bow in ways that are on par with state levels.
Meanwhile, Butte boasted a growth of 265 percent in the real estate sector and was one of the few counties in the state where retail trade has grown significantly in the past 10 years, growing by about 175 percent in earnings since 2007.
“I think this is because of improved business activity, economic growth, but also some of your success in some of your activities that are bringing more visitors to this part of the state,” said Barkey.
Another surprising figure was the growth of the mining industry in Butte, which has only grown by about 40 percent in the past 10 years.
Setbacks in the mining industry, the growth of which is often tied to commodity prices, have overshadowed gains in other sectors, Barkey said.
“Those big negative are obscuring some impressive performances in the rest of the economy, particularly when you look at retail, wholesale trade,” said Barkey.
Other negatives in Barkey’s presentation included an analysis of wage growth since 2007 -- which the economist described as “volatile” and “weak” — and the forecast for job growth in Butte-Silver Bow, which he called “pessimistic” based on predictions by HS Markit, a company that provides business analysis.
On a more positive note, Barkey said the worst of the recent commodity price bust appears to be over, which could be good news for the mining industry.
Overall Barkey predicts a year of slow growth in 2018. But in the long term, he said, Butte has show impressive gains from the early 1990s, when employment hit all time lows. Since then employment has been up by 50 percent.