Missoula Job Service and Missoula Economic Partnership help company founders attend prestigious program
Late May 2012, Michael FitzGerald suddenly learned that his company’s expenses were about to double. It was the dark lining to an otherwise silver cloud: FitzGerald and his two fellow co-founders of Submittable — a startup Missoula-based software company that helps websites manage digital submissions — had just been accepted to Y Combinator, a residency program for startup tech businesses in Silicon Valley.
FitzGerald and his partners, Bruce Tribbensee and John Brownell, knew they had to seize the opportunity. After all, Wired magazine’s May 2011 issue called Y Combinator “an unmatchable entrée into the otherwise closed world of high-stakes Internet entrepreneurship” and “a geek version of the Good Housekeeping Seal.”
But to their small startup the cost of moving to California for three months — while still maintaining offices and residences in Montana — was daunting. Even with financial assistance from Y Combinator itself, FitzGerald wasn’t sure how to cover basic expenses. And they had just a little more than a month before they were due at Y Combinator’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.
That’s when Brigitta Miranda-Freer of the Missoula Economic Partnership pointed him in a seemingly unlikely direction: Missoula Job Service.
Mostly known around town as a resource for the unemployed worker, Job Service offers numerous programs to help startup, growing and/or thriving businesses as well. Miranda-Freer knew that Job Service has access to funds in a quietly run, state-funded program known as Incumbent Worker Training, which helps small businesses pay for on-site and remote professional training.
“I’m really trying to run Job Service like a business and not like government. We’re trying hard to be flexible and adaptable to company and workforce needs.”
– Wolf Ametsbichler, manager, Missoula Job Service
The only hitch: Y Combinator isn’t officially a training program, meaning there is no certificate at the end — a requirement, on paper anyway, of IWT funding. Yet every company that has ever participated has praised Y Combinator as a kind of “boot camp business school.”
“The thing we’re getting out of this is the general ABCs of creating a company out of nothing,” said FitzGerald, noting that Submittable, which achieved $1 million in revenues last year, aims to create 30-40 new jobs in Missoula.
That was enough to convince Wolf Ametsbichler, manager of Missoula Job Service, to work with Submittable. The result: the three company founders each received $2,000 in IWT funds to help defray expenses during their Y Combinator summer.
The availability of those funds on fairly short notice was a pleasant surprise for FitzGerald.
For Ametsbichler, it was all in a day’s work.
“I’m really trying to run Job Service like a business and not like government,” Ametsbichler said. “We’re trying hard to be flexible and adaptable to company and workforce needs.”
That philosophy runs throughout the unassuming building located on a shady corner of South Third Street West.
Unemployed workers have long lauded the personalized attention offered by Missoula Job Service. When Smurfit-Stone Container shuttered its Frenchtown operation in late 2009, the agency aggressively helped find new employment or retraining for the mill’s 417 well-paid workers.
Similarly customized services have long been available to companies as well. Yet comparatively few employers and entrepreneurs even know these resources exist — a fact both vexing and understandable, in Ametsbichler’s view.
“We do what we are able to to get the word out,” he explained, “but we’re not allowed to advertise a lot of what we do,” due to limitations on how state funds may be spent.
In fact, Job Service serves as a hub for an array of resources — in some cases even cash — to help local companies ease and accelerate the hiring process.
The programs of Missoula Job Service “may not be well known in the business community, but they play a vital role in local economic development efforts.”
– Brigitta Miranda-Freer, business development director, Missoula Economic Partnership
For example, companies that hire unemployed workers may qualify to have up to 90 percent of those workers’ wages paid for six months, to assist in training.
“Especially in an emerging economy that is strengthening, that’s very helpful because it helps keep the risk of hiring low,” said Ametsbichler, noting that those training dollars come with “no strings attached.”
Companies that wish to remain anonymous while hiring new workers can route applications through Job Service and utilize the facility’s interview and training facilities. Job Service also offers other services typically provided by a company’s human resources department.
When out-of-area companies want to know specific information about the local labor pool in anticipation of a possible relocation, Job Service produces customized reports that draw on a deep well of data. Recently, one company called Missoula Economic Partnership looking for detailed information about the local pool of skilled pipefitters and welders. In less than one day, Ametsbichler and his staff assembled a customized report that not only highlighted the number of available workers and the prevailing wage in the area, but also compared that data to the labor market in another region the company was considering for its relocation.
Such services may not be well known in the business community, but they play a vital role in local economic development efforts, said Miranda-Freer, business development director with Missoula Economic Partnership.
That’s why the Partnership forged an early strategic partnership with Missoula Job Service.
“One of our efforts is to help expand and adapt the utility of existing programs to meet the needs that are out there,” Miranda-Freer said. “In the case of Job Service, its responsiveness is something people don’t necessarily expect of a government agency. Job Service staffers are great to work with and helpful to more companies than you would ever imagine.
“Its programs help get companies to the point of profitability quicker,” she added. “I’m making referrals to Job Service all the time because of the breadth and quality of the programs it offers.”
For his part, FitzGerald is grateful for the help.
“Our expenses have definitely increased while we’re here, plus a general stress on our families back home,” FitzGerald said by telephone from the condo he is sharing with Tribbensee and Brownell.
“The IWT grant was a really, really great thing.”