Kristen Heck has worked with Montana businesses on recruiting employees for more than 20 years. After being the majority owner of LC Staffing for 19 years, she became the sole owner of the company two years ago. Over the years, she’s seen how employer’s views have changed on women and young people in the workforce.
“Twenty-five years ago, I ran into a few instances in the workplace of attempted discrimination against women who had children,” Heck said. “I was surprised by the lack of knowledge of fair employment practices as they related to working mothers, at that time many employers did not have an HR professional on staff. We educated such employers that they could not apply any unfair
filtering systems but to embrace all qualified people; in fact these people became great contributors to their organization. I also chartered the Society for Human Resources Chapter in Flathead County, which provided necessary support and education for employers.”
Heck was one of six women who joined the Montana Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 26 in Helena for a round table discussion about women in business in Montana. The other participants included Kim Wild, president/ CEO of TowHaul; Lindsey Hanna, senior software engineer at Workiva; Skye Hatten, owner of Skye Hatten Photography; Marcy Mutch, Chief Financial Officer and executive vice president of First Interstate Bank; and Nancy Cormier, Helena operations manager and vice president of Morrison-Maierle. During the roundtable discussion, the participants discussed where women in business in Montana stood years ago, where they’re heading today and their thoughts on broader workforce issues in Montana.
FACING CHALLENGES HEAD FIRST
When she began college, Cormier was among the few women enrolled in her school’s engineering program. She even recalled when she applied for her first engineering job in Montana, one firm told her they were not ready for a female engineer. Another firm told her they were worried she would become pregnant and wouldn’t be able to go out into the field.
In her masters program, Cormier continued to encounter hurdles.
“Even when I started my masters program, my major professor told me that he didn’t think women made good engineers and that I probably wasn’t going to make it through the program,” she said. “I see that in the last 30 years that has changed dramatically. We as a firm interact closely with Montana Tech, Montana State University, and Carroll College and we see many more young women graduates applying for jobs. It has changed so much, and they’re not afraid to jump into that world.”
Wild has also faced her own set of challenges.
In Montana, manufacturing is one of the state’s fastest growing sectors. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women remain underrepresented in the industry. Women’s share of employment in the manufacturing industry nationally peaked at 33.2 percent nationwide in 1990 before falling to 29 percent in 2016.
As the president/CEO of a manufacturing company that makes large mining equipment, Wild said she is usually the only woman in the room. Since TowHaul sells products internationally, Wild conducts much of her business communication over email. Many times, people make assumptions before meeting her.
“Often times a new customer or purchaser will assume that I’m a man,” she said. “When they get on the phone or I meet them in person, they’re surprised. It’ll go either one way or the other: either they’ll become a real gentleman or it’ll be the other way and they’ll get real bullheaded. Again, I have learned to smile, ask questions, show them I’m interested and that I know what I’m doing and I stand my ground.”
After graduating from MSU Billings, Mutch went into public accounting. When she entered the workforce, she had the support of one of her female superiors.
“When I was in public accounting a female partner, her name was Joy Culver, was supportive of my career,” Mutch said. “I had children at the time and they were young and in school. I wanted to be a part-time tax manager and she helped pave the way. I was one of the first part-time managers the company ever had.”
A SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE
Today, businesses have adopted a different attitude toward women and young people in the workforce.
“We’re at this place now where it is acceptable to have balance in your life,” Heck said. “I remember when I was first entering the workforce and had very young children, I had a fear I would be terminated if I missed work due to a sick little one. Things have improved for parents working outside of home.”
Many companies or businesses have taken a fresh approach to accommodating new mothers and fathers. At TowHaul, Wild has worked on creating a family oriented company.
“One thing we do is if any of the women in my company have a baby, when they’re done with their maternity leave they’re allowed to bring their baby to work with them for several months,” Wild said. “We set up their office for them so they can nurse and take care of their baby when they’re working. Also, when a baby is born in one of our families and the man works for us, we give them some paternity leave as well.”
Mutch said over the years she’s slowly seen banking change. While many executive level positions are still held by men, Mutch said First Interstate Bank has three mwomen on its executive team of six members. Its senior leadership team of 24 employees has 12 women.
“In the banking industry there are more women than men,” Mutch said. “I think over 70 percent of our workforce are women, but not as many are in executive roles. I think that is beginning to change and we will see more women in leadership and executive positions.”
CRACKING THE WORKFORCE PUZZLE
Like many employers across the state, all of the women said they are seeing many different issues when it comes to workforce development.
Montana has a little more than one million residents, but unemployment in Treasure State sat at 3.7 percent in December 2018. Across the state, rural and urban communities are trying to solve the workforce puzzle. Employers today are dealing with a desire for more flexible schedules and market issues out of their hands.
“We still value people that stay,” Cormier said. “We want people to stay. We hire qualified highly educated people and then we still have to train them. There is a substantial investment that goes into hiring and training and keeping an employee. When you lose an employee, the cost to replace them is significant.”
While larger companies are dealing with retaining workers, small business owners have their own set of challenges. According to the State of Entrepreneurship report from the Montana Chamber Foundation, only half of Montana’s small businesses stay open after five years. As a small business owner, Hatten is a boss, bookkeeper, social media guru, her own cheerleader and more all wrapped into one.
“As far as my own personal struggles, it comes down to insecurities,” Hatten said. “I do tend to be a perfectionist. I do tend to on the creative side not be good at accepting the work I produce. We all kind of, to some extent, struggle with the comparison factor sometimes too.”
According to a 2018 report from the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, A Profile of Montana’s High Tech Industries, alliance members were responsible for $1.4 billion in gross sales while non-member surveyed generated $267 million in sales. The report also found 28 percent of members and 48 percent of nonmembers reported it was harder to hire qualified new employees in Montana in 2017.
Hanna has seen one unique trend when it comes to older women in the high-tech industry.
“You don’t see many women over the age of 40 in my industry,” Hanna said. “You just don’t. If you do, they are in a management role. I don’t see a lot of female role models that are doing well technically in the 40-60 age range but I see a fair number of men. …I think a lot of it just all the mental overhead of being the only in the room all the time being the only woman in a meeting, being one of only two women on a team.”
ENCOURAGING THE LEADERS OF TOMORROW
Recently, the Hatten family made the trek to Chicago to watch a Chicago Blackhawks NHL game, see the play Hamilton and explore the city. The Hattens soaked in all the sights and sounds of Chicago, and after six days it was time to return to Helena. As Hatten walked off the plane, she made a stark realization.
“We couldn’t help but notice the volume difference in the city,” Hatten said. “It wasn’t uncomfortably loud, but it was just loud. We didn’t really think anything of it. What was ironic was when we landed in Montana and everybody got out and said, ‘It’s just so quiet.’ I would say Montana has a lot to offer as far as local activities. There is something to be said for having the trails and activities and recreation opportunities that are right outside our back door.”
Cormier and Wild also commented on the work ethic of Montanans which encompasses the spirit of the west. With multiple locations in Montana, Cormier said Morrison-Maierle has a lot to offer because of the beauty of the Treasure State. Heck added that she feels business owners are treated with high respect in Montana.
One fact many of the women agreed on was the importance of female representation in all aspects of business and the workplace.
“From my perspective about getting women more involved, I think it’s all about the visual role model of them existing,” Hanna said. “I didn’t actually meet a real-life software engineer that was female until my junior year of college. I was like, “Probably they exist, I’m guessing,” but it would have been very, very helpful to have that visual of that it’s a thing we’re allowed to do or can do. I never personally doubted that women couldn’t do it, but I did doubt that I could.”
When it came to advice for Montana’s female future workers, each woman had their own tips or advice. Many of them encouraged women to be authentic, stay curious and never back down.
“You will run up against people doubting you,” Cormier said. “I run into that. I’ve been the inspector on construction projects for wastewater treatment plants. I’m 5-foot-2 and I weigh 110 pounds. You put me in a reflective vest and a hard hat, and I think people working in construction may not tend to take someone like me seriously. But when you know the design and you know why it is designed the way it is, you gain their confidence. You have to believe in yourself, even when those around you might not.”