Butte’s mining jobs pay some of the best wages in the state. But there’s another growing sector in southwest Montana that packs an economic punch.
The University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research released a study on Tuesday touting the importance of high-tech and manufacturing jobs.
The 143 members of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance – eight of whom are in southwest Montana – pay their employees more than $50,000 a year, and combined for more than $632 million in sales in 2014.
“I don’t think people appreciated the contribution high-tech and manufacturing are making in the state,” said Greg Gianforte, chair of the business alliance and founder of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman. “Honestly, we weren’t sure either.”
The group, founded last spring, hopes to use the study as a tool to help “shine a brighter light” on the sector.
One of the key findings of the study is that members said attracting qualified, talented employees is one of their biggest obstacles. One of the business alliance’s biggest goals is to improve recruiting.
“You have a tremendous asset in Butte with Montana Tech,” Gianforte said, pointing to its highly qualified computer science graduates.
People with Hoplite, a small software-security company that opened an office in Butte’s Thornton Building in July, said that they hoped to work with Tech to recruit interns and graduates.
But Gianforte said that all of last year’s Tech computer science graduates took jobs out-of-state.
The business alliance hopes to change that with tools like a jobs portal posting open positions for member businesses.
According to the study, alliance members plan to add 400 new jobs over the next year, and employment and revenue are expected to grow 8 to 10 times faster than the state average.
Tech companies can operate from virtually anywhere nowadays. It’s not like tech workers need to flock toward major cities.
“The Internet really removes geography as a constraint,” Gianforte said.
In fact, Montana firms might have some recruiting advantages.
“Montana quality-of-life plays an important role in their competitiveness,” bureau director Patrick Barkey said in a statement. About 37 percent of businesses surveyed said that quality of life in Montana was a business advantage.
Travis Cottom, who’s leading the Dillon expansion of tech-consulting company Helix Business Solutions, hoped to attract employees who grew up experiencing that quality of life.
“The big opportunity I see is really to return our young talent here,” Cottom said. “We don’t have to leave the state to search for a great-paying job.”
So far, Missoula and Gallatin counties have been high-tech hot spots for the state, but their success is replicable in other parts of the state.
Butte's economic leaders often emphasize the area's need for diversification.
“People told us growing a global business in Bozeman was going to be impossible,” Gianforte said. “(But) what we did was not unique.”
Some other highlights from the study:
• Business alliance members will raise wages by 7 percent in 2015, higher than the state average of 1.4 percent.
• High-tech members of the business alliance plan to make at least $35 million in capital expenditures at their Montana facilities in 2015
• The Montana-based activities of business alliance members were responsible for $632 million in gross sales in 2014.