When Montgomery Original Snoballs opened in 2012 on Liberty Street, owner Jennifer Skinner said she eagerly put out “Now Hiring” notices on social media and waited for the flurry of candidates.
However, only a few trickled in.
“People didn’t want to come in,” she said. “It was a really sad showing.”
The shaved-ice eatery is now fully staffed with seven part-time high school employees—all quality workers—but Skinner said it is still an ongoing challenge to hire new staff once employees graduate and move.
Skinner’s story is part of a larger trend in the Montgomery area—which includes about 250 square miles surrounding the city of Montgomery—over the last several years, said Shannan Reid, the president of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. There is a shortage of entry-level workers as well as a lack of industries that offer primary jobs, or jobs that would allow residents to live and work in the same area, Reid said.
“If you look at the education of our area, we are by and large degreed,” she said. “Many [have a college] degree, so they are the owners, the managers and the bosses. When we look at our demographics ... we are void of some of that entry-level workforce.”
Ron Borski, a senior data analyst with employment agency Workforce Solutions, said data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests this trend runs across Montgomery County, even as its total population grows.•
“[It is a] tight labor market,” Borski said. “You just don’t have the right kind of growth.”
Looking at the big picture, Reid said this could limit the development of large corporations and big-box stores in the Montgomery area that rely on hundreds of employees. For example, the nearest H-E-B and Target are located in Conroe.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows Montgomery County’s population growth is outpacing that of neighboring counties but still lacking in residents who are typically hired for entry-level jobs, Borski said. Typically, those established in the workforce are older with a higher educational attainment, he said.
From 2017-18, the county’s net migration, or the difference between the number of immigrants and the number of emigrants, was 13,842 individuals. But only 1% of the county’s growth in individuals age 25 and up from 2013-18 came from individuals with only a high school degree or equivalent, Borski said. The remaining 99% came from those with at least some college education, compared to nearby Harris County’s 74.4%.
“[This] population growth [makes] it more difficult for employers to fill their entry-level positions,” Borski said.
The total number of individuals in Montgomery County with only a high school diploma or equivalent actually declined from 2013-18, dropping by 7,859 residents—making the talent pool smaller for companies seeking minimum-wage employees, Borski said.
Data from Montgomery ISD shows about 41% of high school seniors reported they would directly enter the workforce in their graduation exit survey from 2015-19, compared to an average of 55% who reported they would attend some sort of college. Still, Reid said this portion of the population does not fill the employment need for local businesses.
“Our high school students are not our entry-level workforce,” she said. “There are some, but not a lot.”
Montgomery Coffee Co. owner Phil Knutson said he relies on high school students to fill his afternoon positions, but students are not available during the morning hours.
“Finding entry-level staff for early morning to mid-afternoon is difficult,” Knutson said. “Good finds locally tend to be spouses seeking a local part-time job or retired people endeavoring to stay busy.”
A lack of affordable housing opportunities makes it difficult for entry-level workers to both work and live in the area, Reid said. For instance, Reid said she spoke with an employee at the Kroger Marketplace that opened in Montgomery in 2017 who said her colleagues, including an immediate supervisor, struggle to afford living in the area. Kroger Corporate Affairs Manager Sparkle Anderson declined to comment.
At MISD—one of the largest employers in the area, district officials said—there are nine first-year teachers employed in the 2019-20 school year, or .014% of the total teachers, according to the district. However, district officials were not able to comment if entry-level employees faced challenges finding affordable housing.
According to a report prepared by Community Development Strategies, a marketing consultant, 1% of Montgomery’s working population both lived and worked in the area in 2015. The remaining 99% lived outside the area.
“We don’t have a lot of market-value space in general for leasing or renting options,” Reid said.
According to ApartmentData.com, a company that provides market information on apartments, there are a total of 48 apartment complexes in the north Conroe and Montgomery area, which includes Willis, the city of Conroe and the area north of Magnolia.
Meanwhile, average occupancy and rental rates for all apartment units have been rising since at least 2017, according to ApartmentData.com. In November 2017, the overall rental price for units averaged $894 per month with occupancy at 85.6%. As of October, those numbers were $969 per month and 93%, respectively. For comparison, the Greater Houston area’s average rental price is $1,048 per month.
Knutson said the community needs a balance in the housing portfolio with high-end and mid-range choices as well as “affordable” options, such as apartment complexes.
“We need options in this range to support entry-level staffing for local business,” he said.
Lack of industry
Reid said there must be an adequate customer and employee base when adding new businesses to the area.
“There’s only so much market share,” she said. “We can’t get another H-E-B yet until we have more rooftops.”•Adding to the challenge is Montgomery must compete with nearby Conroe, which offers more housing opportunities, infrastructure and incentives to attract industrial employers, said Michael Prats, senior market analyst for Community Development Strategies.
“It’s not to say Montgomery doesn’t have any of those things; they just don’t have them to the scale of what the Conroe market does,” Prats said.
Employment opportunities primarily in retail, health care and manufacturing are expected to increase in the Lake Conroe area, which includes Montgomery, Conroe and Willis, in the next several years, according to the Community Development Strategies report. However, most of the business and industrial development is expected to come from Conroe.
For example, five out of the six large-scale office developments proposed in the area in 2018 were in the city of Conroe, with one in Willis, according to the Community Development Strategies report. Of the 18 industrial projects proposed in 2018, none were in the Montgomery area.
To address the workforce issue, Reid said the chamber’s long-term goal would be to establish primary entry-level jobs that go beyond minimum-wage positions. This could be done by joining the Lone Star College System, she said.
If MISD voters voted to join, they would pay taxes to LSCS but students would qualify for in-district tuition. LSCS might be more likely to build a campus in the Montgomery area, she said.
“In order to have a high-paying industry for a primary job so that people can live and work in the same location, those industries need training ... for the employees,” she said.
About 13% of spring 2018 MISD graduates enrolled in LSCS in fall 2018, according to LSCS, but Reid said if a campus was built in the Montgomery area, more students would remain in the area after graduating high school. •“We would suddenly have a bump-up of our 20-something category, which provides our entry-level workforce that doesn’t have their [college] degree yet,” she said.