Almost everyone does it: earn less

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Farmers do it. Retail salespeople do it. Even educated professionals do it. The latest statistics confirm workers in a wide variety of occupations continue to earn less in Mesa County than the national averages.

What’s less clear is exactly why.

Comparatively high unemployment rates and an economy comprised mostly of small businesses could play a role. And there are some workers who willingly trade the higher wages they’d earn elsewhere for such lifestyle amenities as scenic surroundings, recreational opportunities and mild climate.

What the lower wages don’t reflect, though, is lower skill or training levels, said Kelly Flenniken, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership. “We have really, really talented and bright people.”

According to estimates from a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey for May 2012, the latest available, workers in Mesa County earned an average hourly wage of $19.51. That’s more than 11 percent below the nationwide average of $22.01.

Hourly wages ranged from $10.19 for food preparation and service workers to $43.25 for managers.

Out of 22 major occupational groups, Mesa County workers in 11 groups earned what were deemed significantly lower wages than the national averages, the BLS reported.

The proportional differences ranged from 6 percent less in office support and personal care jobs to 35 percent less in a broad arts, design, entertainment, sports and media occupational group. The differences also were pronounced in management positions and such professions as architecture, engineering and law.

Workers in only one occupational group in Mesa County earned wages deemed significantly higher than the national average. With an average hourly wage of $13.17, workers employed in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance earned 7 percent more than the national average for those jobs.

Suzie Miller, business services manager at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction, said the BLS numbers are similar to more recent figures she’s reviewed.

According to statistics compiled by Economic Modeling Specialists International for July 2013, average annual earnings of $41,416 in Mesa County remains 19 percent below state and national averages.

Average annual earnings in Mesa County ranged from $13,658 for the arts, entertainment and recreation occupational sector to $103,273 for management positions.

Out of the top 15 occupations in terms of the number of people employed in those positions in Mesa County, 12 paid average hourly earnings below state and national averages.

Miller said the differences reflect in part the comparatively higher unemployment rate in Mesa County than other parts of the state and nation. As a result, a deeper labor pool offers an ample supply to meet labor demand, she added. “When you have more options to choose from, you can pay less.”

For July, the latest month for which estimates are available, the jobless rate stood at 8.3 percent in Mesa County, 7.1 percent in Colorado and 7.4 percent in the United States.

Wages tend to run comparatively higher in occupations with higher labor demand, including building maintenance and food service jobs, Miller said.

Flenniken said Mesa County lagged behind other areas of the state and nation in entering the recession and has lagged behind in fully recovering.

Moreover, the Mesa County economy is comprised mostly of small businesses that typically can’t compete with larger firms in the wages and benefits they offer, she said.

As a consequence, some people leave Mesa County for the higher wages they can earn elsewhere, she added.

Still, wages constitute only one factor when families decide where to work and live, Miller said. And some families are willing to work for less to live in a place that offers recreational and cultural amenities and a mild climate, she said. “All of these really factor into a family’s decision.”

While the cost of living is slightly lower in Mesa County than other areas of Colorado and the United States, the difference isn’t substantial.

According to the results of a national cost of living index calculated for the second quarter of 2013, Mesa County received an overall composite score of 97.1, just below the average score of 100. The cost of utilities was well below the national average at 81.5, while the cost of groceries and housing were a bit below national averages at 98.2 and 98.1 respectively. The cost of transportation and health care topped national averages, however, at 105.2 and 103.6 respectively.

Despite the lower wages, Mesa County offers a  skilled work force that constitutes an attraction for companies considering relocating to the area, Flenniken said.

“It’s absolutely the availability that’s the biggest factor.”

The local work force is increasingly well educated as well, she said. About 90 percent of workers have at least a high school diploma or its equivalent. About 20 percent of workers hold a four-year college degree and 9 percent hold graduate or professional degrees, she said.

Miller and Flenniken expect wages to increase as Mesa County more fully recovers from the recession. But a broader industrial base with more companies paying higher wages also would help, they said.

Flenniken said that’s one reason the Grand Junction Economic Partnership strives to offer incentives to companies relocating or opening operations in Mesa County that pay annual earnings that exceed the local average by at least 10 percent.