The Evolving Economic Outlook for High-tech Montana

Paul Gladen, director of the UM Blackstone LaunchPad and Montana Code School, Tom Stergios from ATG – acquired by Cognizant in 2018, and Robert “Tino” Sonora, Associate Director/Director of Health Care Research at BBER, talked with facilitator Tom Severson, president of First Interstate Bank about the economic impact of entrepreneurship in high-tech and manufacturing at the February 1st Economic Outlook Seminar in Missoula. Photo by Christina Henderson/MHTBA.

By Christina Henderson

I moved to Montana eight years ago, in January of 2011, after my husband landed his dream job with the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula. I had never been to Montana before we flew out to look for a house, but I was up for an adventure. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard to get a job and that surely the economy in Montana would be better than Michigan, given the problems in Detroit. I was wrong.

The first event I attended after moving to Missoula was the 2011 Montana Economic OutIook Seminar, hosted by the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER). The theme was the aftermath of the great recession. I learned that Montana was 49th in the nation for wages, ahead of only Mississippi. The closure of mills in Frenchtown and Bonner had hit Missoula hard, eliminating hundreds of high-paying jobs and casting a pall over the community.

My optimism took a further hit as I sat next to a job counselor for a local employment agency. He warned that I should expect a pay cut and that some candidates searched for years before finding a job in Montana. It was hard, as a trailing spouse and a newcomer, to realize how limited my opportunities could be.

Thankfully, after a few months, BBER hired me as their marketing director to plan the Montana Economic Outlook Seminars in 2012. The job gave me access to Montana’s premier economists, and I grilled them about Montana’s low wages. I became obsessed with the question of how Montanans could get high-paying jobs. I used the UM employee tuition waiver to go back to school for my MBA and wrote articles for Montana Business Quarterly examining the outsized impact of high-growth companies on job creation.

In 2012, RightNow Technologies in Bozeman sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion. At BBER, data showed the sale of RightNow created an almost 80 percent increase in wages in Gallatin County that year. The effects continue today as the Bozeman area continues to lead the state in wages and economic growth.

I saw that entrepreneurship, particularly in high-tech and manufacturing, could be the answer to Montana’s lack of jobs and low wages. And when I found out that a group of Bozeman technology leaders was going to form the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and hire an executive director, I just felt this pull – that’s my job. That’s what I’m supposed to do.

Recently, I received an email from a man named Mark who is working for a tech company in Vermont. He wants to move to Billings to be near family and was wondering what job openings there might be there in 2019. I was able to send him links to tech jobs as well as the names of four companies. It felt good to share opportunities with someone who wants to apply their talents in Montana.

I have continued to attend the annual BBER Economic Outlook Seminar, and it has been fun to watch as high-tech receives more space on the program each year. In 2019, BBER is hosting local industry panels in the 10 Montana cities on their schedule, and the Alliance was invited to recommend speakers from high-growth companies in each location.

In Missoula on February 1st, Alliance members Tom Stergios from ATG – acquired by Cognizant in 2018, Paul Gladen, director of the UM Blackstone LaunchPad and Montana Code School, and facilitator Tom Severson, president of First Interstate Bank in Missoula, discussed the economic impact of entrepreneurship in high-tech and manufacturing and the hundreds of high-paying jobs being created in Missoula and beyond.

Grant Kier, the new president of the Missoula Economic Partnership, underscored Missoula’s growth in multiple industries. Empty mill sites in Missoula, particularly at Bonner, are host to new companies with more employees collectively than the number of workers employed by the original mill.

Congressman Greg Gianforte attended the seminar in Missoula. In his opening remarks, he cited data from the Alliance’s 2018 high tech industry survey as reported in BBER’s 2019 Economic Report – this sector is growing 9 times the overall Montana economy, pays twice the median wage, and represented $1.7 billion in revenue in 2017. Our 2019 survey will be released later this month, so stay tuned for the latest data.

It was striking what a different economic outlook I was hearing from the one presented in 2011. I am so grateful that, after having felt fear and uncertainty as a job-seeker moving to Montana, I have been privileged to help grow an organization writing a new story for our state’s economy.


About the Author: Christina Quick Henderson is Executive Director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship, management and organizational behavior in the College of Business at the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an nonpartisan nonprofit association of more than 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information, visit MTHighTech.org or subscribe to our biweekly newsletter.

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