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Aluminum Plant may Hire 130 People

by Nancy Kimball
Daily Inter Lake, November 22, 2006

Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. has begun the process of hiring up to 130 workers and craftsmen to staff the expected start-up of the second of its five potlines.

No company officials were available to provide or confirm information this week, but news of the hires and a job fair on Wednesday in Kalispell spread fast among those searching the local job market.

Montana Job Service Manager Mike Shoquist said his office started testing applicants late last week for job skills required in three categories.

Shoquist said the company is seeking about 100 laborers, who need basic math and reading skills and forklift operation experience.

In addition, the call went out for 20 or 30 millwrights and electricians.

Freedom Bank President Don Bennett said the company is looking for journeyman electricians.

One estimate put laborers' wages around $19 an hour, and the millwrights' and electricians' wages in the $23 to $24 hourly range.

By midday Wednesday, Shoquist said about 120 people had gone through the Job Service's "Prove-It" job testing system specifically for the aluminum company's job openings.

Around noon, computer testing stations were in full use at the Job Service. Jim DeWaters of the company's human resources department was conducting question-and-answer sessions to offer information to applicants.

Shoquist said the Job Service geared up quickly after conferring with company officials a little more than a week ago.

"It's welcome news, but it just came out of the blue last week," he said.

Although the time has expired for laid-off CFAC workers to be automatically recalled, some former workers received direct word of the pending hires and potline restart.

With a Flathead Valley unemployment rate of around 3 percent, the CFAC hirings could have an impact on other businesses that have been having trouble filling positions over recent months.

"Some people think it's a bummer," Bennett said of the potential drain it could cause on the labor pool.

Since last spring, Shoquist said, the Job Service has routinely carried between 500 and 600 job postings.

"Almost any employer would say they have trouble finding workers," he said.

Many former CFAC workers went into business for themselves after being laid off from the aluminum plant, he said, using their craftsman skills in the construction trades and related fields that have been booming in the Flathead.

"Electricians are probably turning work down now," Shoquist speculated, primarily because of the glut of new home construction.

Despite the advantages of running their own businesses, he said many now may return to the aluminum plant for benefits, predictable paychecks or simply an indoor work environment. They also may want to hedge against the national trend toward a slowing construction market.

Wages almost certainly will be the key for the aluminum plant, or any other labor-market employer, to attract the most qualified pool of applicants.

"To attract people to the area - the cost of housing and cost of living is pretty high here," it will take competitive pay, he said. "If you're going to be an employer of choice you've got to offer higher-than-average wages."

Columbia Falls Aluminum currently operates one potline and employs about 150 people. The plant has been running the single potline - 20 percent of its capacity - since March 2003.

In June, the company signed a contract that will supply up to 140 megawatts of electricity for the next five years. Bonneville Power Administration and Flathead Electric Cooperative also signed the contract. The plant currently uses 70 megawatts of electricity.

Under the contract, BPA will provide its direct service industry customers financial payments in lieu of physical power. Monetary benefits are capped at $59 million a year, which allows the five Northwest aluminum companies to receive up to 560 average megawatts annually.

Now that Columbia Falls Aluminum doesn't receive power directly from BPA, Flathead Electric is involved with receiving, authorizing and paying those financial benefits.

At the time the contract was signed, Haley Beaudry, CFAC's manager of external affairs, said the company had no plans to expand operations.

Nancy Kimball
Aluminum Plant may Hire 130 People
Daily Inter Lake, November 22, 2006

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