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Lessons gleaned from the pandemic

Sept 5, 2021
By Jim Larson

For economist Pat Barkey, the pandemic affirmed the role of government in the economy.

From an economic standpoint, the virus taught us the advantages of “to use President Biden’s phrase, going in big,” he said. 

Conversely, he argued that the viral onslaught dealt a blow to those who were against government intervention in the economy. “If you embrace the philosophy of limited government. If you really think that government should stay out of the way of x, y and z, whatever is on that list, the pandemic has been very tough on you, because the essence of a pandemic is that what we do affects everyone else,” he said during an online interview in April.

“So one of the lessons of this, if you will, is that there has to be, and no matter how you feel philosophically, and many people fight this tooth and nail, there has to be some government involvement in public health planning,” he said.

Barkey said that the government “fumbled the ball this time.” The economist called the handling of the pandemic a public health failure and a private sector drug company success.

Barkey argued that the public needs to demand better performance from the government, but he said that it was unclear how that would happen. “I mean, I don’t know if you can embarrass these people more than they have been embarrassed.”

The pandemic, Barkey noted, changed the way economists looked at the economy. Traditionally, they look at unemployment rates, and other government statistics, but those, while still useful, moved slowly. The pandemic caused analysts to adopt, more rapidly, private sector sources.

One of those, Barkey said, was called a mobility index. As Americans move around with their cell phones, cell phone towers track where they go. You can pick a city, he noted, and tell how many people were moving on any given day. The pandemic taught economists more about data about new sources of data, “and we’re not going to unlearn that,” he said.

The economist added that “What I just said about economics has happened in almost every industry.” Restaurants learned about takeout. Retail learned about ecommerce. Real estate learned about showing houses via Zoom. “...that toothpaste is not going back into the tube,” Barkey noted.

Turning to Montana, Barkey noted that the state experienced a jobs recession rather than an income recession, and that was the case in every urban area in the state. For Montanans, the low point came in March and April last year, “whether they were in high flying Bozeman or not quite as high flying Lewistown or you name it.” 

He observed that before the pandemic, different areas of the state followed different economic trajectories, but “this was one big storm cloud that settled over the entire state, and it didn’t miss anywhere.”

Barkey said that one of the reasons that job loss outstripped income loss was that some of the hardest hit industries didn’t pay well to begin with. Accommodations and restaurants were “disproportionately hit,” he noted. He added that in certain fields, jobs were actually added. In industries such as healthcare and grocery, jobs were added or workers worked longer hours and some received bonuses.

The Missoula-based economist sees growth in Montana’s near-term future. The fall in the economy was catastrophic, he said, but he predicted the “...a pretty big explosion of job growth..” 

Barkey predicts growth in the “high single digits,” a term generally only used by newscasters describing Montana’s weather. He noted that economic prognosticators are revising their expectations and are predicting “a really big surge back this year as the economy opens back up and government spending really hits.” 

Barkey warned that the state might be in for a “hangover” next year as the “sugar” (government spending) wore off. He noted that growth was being measured against the low bar of last year and was being spurred by government spending.

On a positive note, Barkey said that the pandemic might be the type of event that shakes up the economy and gets the permanent rate of growth restarted. There are many talented people who have “been shaken from their jobs.” That talent could plug itself into new business opportunities, he added.

He mused that the pandemic might add a new dynamic to the economy.  He said that unknown to most, the number of new business startups has been in decline since the early eighties. There is evidence he said, that that trend is beginning to reverse. Describing the process, Barkey referred to economist James Schumpeter’s term, “creative destruction, and what he meant by that is that the economy, the market economy, is a brutal place.”

Remote work brings decent wages for some

December 15, 2018

On the list of ideas for tackling the twin challenges that plague Montana workers — scarce rural jobs and low wages even in cities — telework is close to the top.

As better internet access connects even far-flung rural communities with the rest of the world, it seems to promise Montanans a way to have their cake and eat it too: a fulfilling career at a city wage without having to leave the Last Best Place.

The notion has been embraced by business leaders and officeholders across the state, most notably, former tech entrepreneur-turned-U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte, who once mailed thousands of brochures to Montana college graduates imploring them to “come home to Montana” and has spoken of telecommuting as allowing ranch spouses to “earn a national wage in a rural community.”

“The reality is that the Internet has removed geography as a constraint,” Gianforte said in Missoula during a 2015 “Bring Our Families Back” tour that presaged his 2016 bid for governor. “Our graduates can live virtually anywhere in Montana and work for Fortune 500 companies with global client bases.”

Telecommuting has been a boon for some in Montana, but the remote work landscape isn’t quite as flat as its boosters sometimes claim. Geography — particularly access to education and professional networks — still shapes the careers of Montanans who aspire to pair national opportunity with rural lifestyles.

There are companies hiring Montanans for work-from-home positions such as customer service jobs, said Montana High Tech Business Alliance director Christina Henderson. But the typical remote worker in the state is someone with big-city experience who has found a way to bring their job with them to Montana.

“It’s much more common for remote workers to be mid- to late-career, and to have highly valuable skill sets,” she said.

Networked versus networking

The Montana-based remote workers interviewed for this piece — all in tech sector jobs — said they tend to like the arrangement because it allows them to avoid the cubicle and manage their own schedules.

But they also acknowledge the barriers that telecommuting poses to the social aspects of their work. Whether made online or through old-fashioned facetime, professional connections that let workers pass along job leads and swap tips on new technologies are a key asset in knowledge-based industries, especially for younger less-established workers.

Missoula software engineer Chris Downie, for example, started his career in Seattle with Microsoft and Amazon. He moved to Montana about four years ago because his wife wanted to live somewhere less crowded. He relocated without quitting his then job and, in the years since, has continued to work remotely even as he’s taken other positions. He currently works for an Atlanta-based mobile app company, he said.

Downie says he likes the flexibility, which makes it easier to “err on the side of life” when negotiating work-life balance. He’s also earning more than he would for the same work at a Missoula-based company, he said.

Even so, Downie doesn’t think he’d start a career remotely.

“Remote mentorship is difficult,” he said. “A very good fast track on your career is to be at a company with a good mentorship program.”

He also said that working from home instead of an office means he has to be more deliberate about finding social outlets. He regularly attends Missoula coding meetups and is active in a Slack messaging group that serves as a virtual water cooler for western Montana techies.

Because having professional community available in and outside of tech circles is important to him, Downie said he isn’t sure he’d want to work from a smaller town.

“Who would my social group be?” he said.

Do teleworkers choose Montana?

Reliable data on the number of Montana remote workers and their wages aren’t readily available. The state sometimes is cited as having one of the highest telecommuting rates in the nation, but that figure is based on U.S. Census data that comes from a survey question about commuting that measures the number of people working at home instead of driving or walking to work. That means the census figure includes home-based local businesses and excludes remote workers who habitually travel to coffee shops or co-working spaces.

However, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has shifted much of its white-collar workforce to full-time remote status since the passage of the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, provides one example with hard data.

Gianforte has touted the office’s remote work program and, as one of his first acts in Congress, co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to renew a program that makes it easier for staff at the patent office and other federal agencies to work remotely on a full-time basis outside the commuting radius of a physical office.

The patent office, which also encourages part-time telework, says the practice saves its employees commuting time and gas money and also allows them to live outside the pricey Washington, D.C. housing market.

Over the last eight years, the patent office has seen about a fifth of its 13,000 workers shift into full-time remote roles. But most of them haven’t landed far from its Alexandria, Virginia headquarters, according to a patent office report and a database of federal workers.

The number of patent employees teleworking from Montana in 2017 was four.

Patent workers living in Montana don’t appear to have settled in the rural areas that have been largely excluded from the state’s recent job growth. The patent office wouldn’t say where in the state its telecommuters are based, citing employee privacy, but Gianforte told the Billings Gazette last year that Montana had patent examiners in Bozeman, Butte, Billings, and Missoula.

The Montana patent examiners, part of a highly-educated workforce where a science or engineering degree comes standard, are paid well: An average of $121,760, according to March 2018 data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. That’s more than twice the $52,200 a year the U.S. Census Bureau says is the median income for Montana workers with graduate degrees. A fifth Montana employee, a patent administrator newly listed in the state in 2018, has a doctorate, 19 years of federal service, and a $164,200 salary.

Gianforte’s office did not make him available for an interview for this piece, but provided a statement through spokesman Travis Hall:

“In the next Congress, I will continue working with the Trump administration and members of both parties on opportunities to improve Montana’s broadband infrastructure, expand telework options with the federal government, and bring more good-paying jobs to Montana.”

Rural opportunities

Remote workers may tend to clump within commuting distance of cities when they choose Montana, but there may also be promise in telecommuting for Montana workers who already live in small towns in certain fields.

Event marketing materials company, for example, says it has customer service representatives successfully working from home in small towns in central Montana. CEO Lance Trebesch, of Bozeman, said the company employs a seven-person customer support team working remotely from Billings, Columbus, Lewistown, Big Timber, and a ranch outside Two Dot. (The company’s main production facility is in Harlowton, population: 1,000.)


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