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By Alfred T. Palmer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Skilled labor in more demand than ever, unions say

Chris Cioffi | The Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)

A crowd of about 2,500 people gathered in Rose Park to have burgers, hot dogs and perhaps a beer as they commemorated Labor Day.

The annual celebration is hosted by the Greater Yellowstone Central Labor Council, and has been held for more than 30 years.

“It’s a solidarity movement, and a recognition of those who formed the middle class in this country,” said Darrell Johnson, the council’s president.

More than 12,000 members of 22 different unions belong to the council, which has seen positive growth in the past few years.

Skilled trades in Montana were mostly unaffected by the recent recession and are hiring workers every day, he said. “Virtually everyone that wants to work can work.”

Even with an influx of people looking for work in the Bakken region of the Northern Plains, men and women are still joining unions in the Yellowstone area.

“We’re not really losing any members to the oil field,” Johnson said. “In fact, we’re still having trouble filling some of the positions here.”

All industries, except government, added jobs in 2013, and about 12,000 jobs have already been created in 2014, according to a Montana Department of Labor and Industry report released Aug. 29.

Montana’s unemployment rate stands at 4.6 percent, the 11th-lowest in the nation, the report said. Gross domestic product expanded by 4.5 percent in 2013, making Montana the 13th-fastest growing state.

Related: ND labor workforce one of the youngest in the nation

Some of Montana’s high retention numbers can be attributed to job-training programs run by unions, he said. “We’ve got the highest-rated training programs in the country.”

Montana Commissioner of Labor Pam Bucy, who attended the picnic with Gov. Steve Bullock, said training programs are an excellent gateway for people starting careers.

People entering into trade programs are paid to work while they learn and don’t have to worry about student debt, she said. “They get through that program, and they’re a master-level craftsman with a nice, livable wage.”

In the 2015 legislative session, Bucy’s office has vowed to work with members of the Senate and Congress to introduce initiatives to continue improving the programs.

“We really need to focus on training programs to get folks in those high-demand jobs,” she said. “Those are the programs we need to grow.”

For union members like Dennis Balke, who was polishing off a cup of strawberry ice cream with his family and friends, union membership means security.

The son and husband of union workers, Balke has been a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers for the past 10 years.

He retired out of the Laborers’ International Union of North America after a 23-year membership, he said.

While he says a union isn’t for everyone, the security it provides can be important.

“You can do the same thing all your life, but when you’re in a union, there’s a pension,” he said. “Retirement is icing on the cake, rather than just the plain cake.”

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