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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715


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Moving to Montana

If chucking it all and moving to Montana isn't an adventure, I don't know what is.

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ired of the rat race, thinking of chucking it all and moving to Montana? That’s not an uncommon thought, one regularly entertained by harried urbanites with a zest for the great outdoors. I’m a big advocate of people following their dreams, be they moving to Montana or whatever, but I’m also a big advocate of realistically appraising your dream’s chances for success, and coming up with a plan that will increase those chances.

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A friend from college was a sociology major, and wound up working on an extensive study of the patterns of people migrating to the Bozeman area. One of their findings that struck me was that around 80% of the people who moved here wound up leaving again within five years. To this day, the U-Haul rental business here does a brisk business, but moving van rentals for people leaving the area nearly equal those for arrivals. Why? Well, in a nutshell Montana’s economy has often been compared to that of a Third World country. While this is somewhat less true for the larger communities than it is in rural areas, it is an inescapable fact that wages are generally low here. Jobs in the service sector don’t pay particularly well in any part of the country, but in Montana even professional positions pay less, sometimes much less than comparable jobs in most other parts of the U.S. This phenomenon is often referred to as the "Wilderness Tax", which I feel is a most apt description. Due to the obvious amenities of living in an area with unparalleled recreational possibilities, gorgeous scenery, and low crime, to name just a few, competition for good jobs is fierce and there is no shortage of qualified applicants who are quite willing to work for less money than they could get elsewhere.

Of course, this is a good situation for employers. Montana’s work force consistently ranks at or near the top of ratings for performance and capabilities, as opposed to placing near the bottom in per capita income. If you are in the position to consider purchasing, starting, or moving a business here, the ability to hire talented and motivated people has to be one of the main advantages. The turnover, or failure rate among businesses mirrors that of people who move here to join the job market, though. Evaluating possible business ideas is obviously beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to throw out a couple of common mistakes I see that result in failures. Due to the relatively low income levels of many Montanans, businesses that rely solely on a local market are often at risk. Also, Montana is a long ways from anywhere, and freight costs can be prohibitive. Skill at employee relations are important anywhere, but perhaps more so in Montana since those talented employees often come with an independent streak, and didn’t choose to live here so they could be jerked around by an uncaring boss.

The best scenario for successfully moving to, and staying in Montana is to have a good job that you can bring with you. In most cases this means being self-employed, although many companies are increasingly allowing employees to tele-commute. Computers and the internet have greatly reduced or eliminated many of the disadvantages of living in a remote area, and endeavors utilizing them can be as successful in Montana as anywhere. I should no doubt add the disclaimer that being self employed isn’t for everyone, comes with its own set of problems, and no one should go into it thinking it is going to be easier than working for someone else. Still, if you possess the requisite talents, it is probably the ideal alternative, and can allow you the flexibility to enjoy the things that prompted you to live here in the first place. Additionally, you aren’t contributing to the abundance of job seekers and the resulting low wages.

Montana isn’t ever going to become known as a Mecca for high-tech businesses, at least in comparison to more urban areas, but a reasonable number of such companies do operate here and can provide good opportunities for those with technical skills, again usually involving computer talent. Such skills are undoubtedly going to provide many of the best job opportunities, now and in the future, not only in Montana but everywhere. There are also opportunities for those with technical talent in the construction industry, and I have recently noticed several ads for people with CAD/CAM skills as well as job estimators and architects.

Currently there are more jobs available in construction than any other field, once again at least in the bigger towns. These jobs tend to be at least relatively good paying, although long-term employment prospects can be shaky. For a young person without a lot of family and financial obligations, they are a good alternative, probably the best chance for landing a job that provides a living wage. Other good alternatives for younger folks are the many seasonal jobs, mostly in the tourism industry. While these don’t pay as well as construction work, they can be a lot of fun and, obviously, offer a chance to live and work in some of the nicer areas with good recreation close at hand.

A quick perusal of the employment section in the classifieds of any of any of the state’s major newspapers will show quite a variety of jobs, unfortunately the bulk of them are in service jobs, mostly paying in the $6.00/hr range. That’s clearly not enough to finance a move to Montana, or even enough to support yourself if you already live here. Better prospects are always available in the health care, and to a lesser degree, teaching fields. You can expect a lot of competition for these jobs, though, especially in the bigger towns in the western part of the state. If you are willing to live in a smaller town teaching or health care can be a good field, but life in a small, rural town is not for everyone. If you desire a quiet life and want a good place to raise kids, small towns can be great, so don’t think that I am disparaging them. I grew up in the Conrad, Shelby, Cut Bank area in north central Montana and am fond of that area, but when I pass through one of the smaller communities like Sunburst or Valier a line from a Don Schlitz song always goes through my head; "One stop light, blinkin’ on and off, Everybody knows when the neighbors cough, They roll up the streets when the sun goes down, I’m a midnight girl (boy) in a sunset town". Before I get a bunch of hate mail from friends and strangers in those kind of places, though, I should quickly add that quite a few people, particularly retirees, have been moving to them in recent years, although that becomes less the case the further one gets from the mountains. One sad but undeniable fact is that many rural communities in the eastern part of the state do not face a particularly rosy future. The economy in that area is based almost completely on agriculture and oil. Both of these industries are plagued by a boom and bust nature, and are currently deep into the bust phase. This situation isn’t going to turn around anytime soon, and most of these communities are going to continue an inevitable trend of dwindling population and opportunities. Also, some of these towns can be quite clannish, and newcomers are viewed with suspicion until they prove themselves. I’ve heard it said by people who moved to such areas that they could live in a community for ten or fifteen years and still be viewed as "the new people in town". So, if there doesn’t seem to be much competition for an available position, you can be sure there is a reason and I would advise careful investigation before pulling up stakes and moving.

With that said, chances are that except for the previously mentioned possibilities, you are most likely to be looking at locating in the vicinity of one of Montana’s bigger towns, which don’t take very long to list. From east to west, these are Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Butte, Missoula, and Kalispell. These all have populations from 25,000 to around 80,000. I’ll detail a few of the pros and cons of each, and will undoubtedly step on some toes in the process. I assume you didn’t shell out for a subscription to this site to read bland, Chamber-of-Commerce type reviews, though. Bear in mind that these opinions are my own, and you wouldn’t have to look far to find someone who would disagree.

Great Falls and Billings are the state’s two largest towns, and consequently have proportionally more job opportunities. They also tend to have somewhat lower housing costs than the others, with the possible exception of Butte. I know residents of both who are fiercely loyal to their hometowns, and could easily list a far more lengthy list of great things about their town than I have, but I am going to stop there. I am not a huge fan of either city, and in my opinion they lack a lot of the local character that flavor the other cities on the list. While the downtown areas of both have some unique attributes, they both have fairly extensive strip mall areas, with all the charms common to these spots anywhere. While driving through these areas, I am often struck with the thought that I could be in Anywhere, USA, and I despise the bland sameness common to shopping mall/ Wal-Mart/ K-Mart/ fast food strips everywhere. Also, while both cities have good outdoor recreation possibilities, they are generally not quite as close at hand as the other cities mentioned. You are likely to be driving anywhere from 35 to 50 miles or more to hike, fish, hunt, or ski. With that said, if you are living in, say, Newark, NJ; either Great Falls or Billings would probably seem like paradise, and you could certainly do a lot worse.

The other cities mentioned all lie nestled in mountain valleys in the western third of the state, and each possess a unique character that endear them to residents and visitors alike. They all have great recreational possibilities close at hand, wonderful scenery, and while one used to the culture of New York or Paris would likely find them a little sedate, they have enough cultural events and museums, etc., to satisfy most. Besides, no one moves to Montana so they can go to the opera. One disadvantage they all share, again with the possible exception of Butte, are relatively high housing costs. I would consider them all great places to live, if you have a good job or are otherwise free of financial constraints. Of course, there are things I like and dislike about all of them, which follow.

Kalispell and Missoula lie west of the continental divide, and consequently have a somewhat wetter climate than the other towns mentioned. Butte, of course, is also west of the divide, but due to its elevation and surrounding topography, has weather more similar to the cities east of the divide. About the only gripe I have about either Kalispell or Missoula is that sometimes in the winter months they tend to develop inversions. The clouds lower to what seems like fifty feet off the ground, and everything turns gray and drizzly for what can seem like weeks, even if it is only days. Also, Missoula is one of the only spots in the state (Billings is another) with persistent air quality problems. There is a large pulp mill west of town which discharges considerable pollution, and during the aforementioned inversions, the air takes on an odor reminiscent of old diapers. Most residents seem to think these are minor inconveniences, though, far outweighed by the many good things about their towns.

Butte, for better or worse, is a case in itself. As you might be aware, it has an extensive mining history, impossible to ignore due to the gaping Berkeley pit, which has swallowed up a noticeable part of the northeast part of the city. Its colorful history, and the wide variety of immigrants who worked the mines, have combined to give it a more cosmopolitan look than other Montana cities, not to mention a bit more attitude. The mining days are largely over, and their aftermath contributes to some ecological embarrassments, but the business community of Butte possesses a can-do attitude and has attracted a fair number of new business ventures. I doubt that Butte is on any lists of chic and glamorous favorite places of the rich and famous, but it’s an interesting place nonetheless.

Helena is the state capital, and also possesses a colorful mining history. As with Butte, many fortunes were made there in the mid to late 1800’s, and the architecture of many of the old homes reflects that. Another prime example is the cathedral there, largely financed by mining riches. However, readers are probably more interested in the fact that, like most of the other favorite towns mentioned, the mountains start at the city limits.

The final city on my list is my home, Bozeman. For what it’s worth, which isn’t much in my opinion, it probably does make a few lists of chic favorites of the rich and famous. A good number of celebrities have made their homes around here in recent years. I have heard it said by people that have the experience to know, that Bozeman, MT is the best place in the world to live. I haven’t traveled as extensively as some, but from what I have seen I am inclined to agree. It is blessed with relatively good weather, outstanding scenery, unparalleled recreational opportunities, and plenty of cultural activities, galleries, museums, and the like. The downside is some of the highest housing costs and lowest wages in the state.

The cities mentioned are by no means a conclusive list of relocation possibilities in Montana, but I think they represent the most likely ones. Moving down in size, some other possibilities are Lewistown, Livingston, Dillon, and Hamilton, to name just a few. Like trophy elk, good jobs are where you find them, but the cities I have mentioned are where I would look if I were considering relocation. Fortunately, I love it where I am.

As you have hopefully gathered from this article, packing up and moving to Montana without having a job lined up is probably not a good idea. In most cases, even if you do have a good job or career here, you will have to adjust to the fact that you could be making a significant amount more elsewhere. Most residents come to grips with that, though. It’s hard to put a dollar value on some things, but I know I value highly being able to look out my window at snow-capped peaks with herds of elk and deer on their slopes, not to mention the knowledge that if I desire I can be outside on those slopes myself in minutes. There are pros and cons to everything, and as always the old adage holds true; "if it was easy, everyone would do it".





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