HAMILTON, Mont. -

Ravalli County's latest unemployment figures are sparking some encouragement. At 8.5 percent, they are higher than the state's 5.1 percent. But the latest Bitterroot numbers are down from 9 percent in January.

The valley, however, can be a hard place to gauge. It's a place of variables.

Much of the Bitterroot's income is derived from out of Ravalli County. Many workers commute to Missoula. Others travel even farther to the oil fields.

"That hasn't been identified," said Bitterroot Job Service manager Patti Furniss.

They are commuters to the eastern Montana and North Dakota, said Furniss. She said it's hard to know just how many workers, because you need special approval to exchange social security numbers from North Dakota.

Hamilton coffee shop owner Troy Dunn said a huge percentage of his customers are spouses of oil field workers, who live in the valley. Dunn himself, is another variable of the recession. He and his wife opened Outlaw Coffee in Hamilton.

"Instead of searching for employment," said Dunn, "we'll be the employer."

Now, the couple plans to move their small, drive-in coffee shop to Missoula to operate it there. They also plan to expand their business to a larger facility on Highway 93.

Massa Home Center in Hamilton sees the economy picking up a little bit.

"In custom homes particularly," said bookkeeper Jackie Berenyi, "we're seeing a lot of the guys who do remodeling on a day-to-day basis picking up additional jobs."

Frank Celaya is a carpenter who hasn't worked since January. It's been rough, he said.

"Things are going to start in May though," said Celaya, "and I'll go to work."

"Construction has still been slow," said Furniss, "we have a lot of unemployed carpenters."

But she said, "I'm slowly seeing people go back to work in the last year."

Many unemployed people have gone back to school. Furniss said it's important they improve their skills, especially in computers. Skilled jobs require skilled workers.

There are openings at the pharamaceutical manufacturing company GSK. And with the right skills, the health care industry needs workers.

Donaldson Brothers Ready Mix recently hired two new drivers. Workers there expect to be busier than they were last summer.