Job prospects improving, although recovery slow

Gilbert Lujan, supervisor of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction, estimates that more than 12,000 people visit the center each month to take advantage of services offered there. (Business Times photo by Mike Moran)

With the unemployment rate above 11 percent in Mesa County and possibly 20 percent of adults working less than full-time, it can be difficult to find a silver lining for people between jobs or graduates entering the work force.

But there are optimistic signs at the most popular place to hunt for jobs in Mesa County. On one day in early May, the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction posted 187 job orders — in essence, “help wanted” ads. On the same day, more than 8,600 people were registered at the center as looking for work. While the resulting ratio of jobs openings to job applicants might seem small, the math is a little better than it was the same time last year. In fact, the workforce center has been posting between 175 and 200 job orders per day, so the ratio of job postings to job seekers isn’t as low as it might seem. By comparison, the center posted fewer than 100 job orders a day in the late stages of 2009 as the nation emerged from a two-year recession. In addition, each job order can represent more than one job opening.

Then there are the latest results of a Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce survey of local businesses that indicate the number of firms planning to hire people over the next six months exceeds the number of firms planning layoffs. The difference could offer an indication the county is following the lead of a mild national recovery.

“Activity at the national level is driving local activity,” says Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber.

That seems true in an industry sector that has a major effect on the Grand Valley economy, Schwenke adds. “You’re seeing activity in energy.”

Such energy companies as Williams Production and Encana Oil and Gas report more active rigs and more drilling of natural gas wells in Garfield County than they reported a year ago. But many of the recent job openings were filled by workers from outside Colorado, says Gilbert Lujan, supervisor of the Mesa County Workforce Center. Energy workers living in Western Colorado tend to work jobs provided by such support service companies as Halliburton and Schlumberger, which are less active than the companies operating drill rigs.

It’s a slow, but steady, pace of hiring in energy and construction, Lujan says.

Many people employed in the energy and construction sectors in 2008 have had a hard time compensating for missing paychecks since then. More than one in seven job seekers at the workforce center are looking for energy or construction jobs. While options for employment might be better than they were a year ago in Mesa County, many applicants discover the days of finding a job they prefer are gone.

“Now, a lot of people are making a transition and looking at opportunities,” Lujan says. “There’s no openings for what people used to do.”

Blue collar factory positions that pay $40,000 plus health benefits and retirement packages aren’t nearly as plentiful as they were 20 years ago. Many jobs have shifted overseas and new technology enables companies to produce more products with fewer people.

Says Schwenke: “As technology advances, the manual labor needs are less.”

So people close to the employment scene recommend education as a path toward opening more doors.

“You can’t just get your (commercial driver’s license) and drive and make $80,000 a year,” Schwenke said. “There will be a need, but that’s not where the growth will be.”

National survey results indicate the jobless rate for college graduates is much lower than it is among people without higher education degrees. Such results, combined with the difficulty of finding work straight out of high school, could partially explain the increase in enrollment at Mesa State College in Grand Junction and post-secondary trade schools in Mesa County.

Enrollment at Mesa State has ballooned from about 5,000 to more than 8,000 students in the past four years. To better prepare students for job opportunities in Western Colorado, the college now offers degrees in process systems technology, green energy and construction and energy management.

Most jobs in the health care sector require education beyond high school. Health care routinely provides the best ratio of job postings to applicants at the workforce center. “By all means, health care has remained the strongest by far,” Lujan says. “Being a certified nurse aid continues to be in high demand.”

Mesa State offers a range of health care degrees, ranging from a certificate of practical nursing to a doctoral degree in nursing. There are two-year programs to train X-ray and surgical technicians, a four-year bachelor’s of science degree in nursing and a master’s degree in nursing.

Higher education also can open doors to jobs that aren’t directly related to a graduate’s field of study. Anyone with a background in science might qualify for a job in the energy business, Schwenke says.

Classrooms — in high school or college — also can help develop the non-academic skills that can make or break a career. “I can’t teach work ethic, teamwork, thinking and analyzing,” Schwenke says. But students can learn those skills before they graduate by working in teams on school projects. Such efforts are more common than they once were in high school and post-secondary schools, she says. The chamber’s Business-Education Foundation has focused on development of ancillary skills, such as speed reading.

Western Colorado Community College in Grand Junction integrates training in the so-called soft skills of eye contact, shaking hands and punctuality. “We cover basic soft skills,” says John Sluder, assistant technical professor at the community college. “Be on time. Be reasonable with the time you take for lunch.”

The community college is also leading by example when it comes to teamwork. Such related programs as animation, graphic design and media technology are melding into one multi-media design program.

Opportunities remain for people who don’t hold four-year college degrees. The Workforce Investment Act provides funds to help people enroll in short-term training programs for positions in high demand. The Commercial Drivers License and Certified Nursing Aid programs are two examples of such training, Lujan says. There are a lot of “over the road” transportation jobs, he adds. Those often require truck drivers willing to live away from home about half the time.

Energy and construction workers looking for jobs can also find more opportunity if they’re willing to travel. Places where hydraulic fracturing and other support service jobs are more plentiful can provide opportunities for short-term work. “A North Dakota economic development group contacted us looking for support workers,” Lujan said. Such employees usually work on site for two weeks, then fly back home — on the company’s dime — for two weeks of down time.

The workload has been heavy at the workforce center during the economic downturn of the past three years, says Lujan. But the work has been satisfying for the 80 people who serve clients there. “Being able to get their unemployment back on track, get them assistance, find job training opportunities” are all important functions of the center, he says. “There’s been a decrease in new unemployment files.”

But he also realizes the new files can be misleading. People who receive unemployment insurance are the only ones factored into the 11.2 percent jobless rate in Mesa County. People who don’t file for unemployment insurance, people whose unemployment benefits have expired, stay-at-home spouses, students and people who work part-time are counted as officially employed and remain under the radar when it comes to calculating the jobless rate. “There’s no way to track who’s not on unemployment,” Lujan says.

Lujan estimates 15 percent to 17 percent of the Mesa County work force is actually unemployed. Others peg the number at closer to 20 percent. The jobless rate for the construction industry is around 20 percent, Lujan says.

To make the picture darker, many unemployed people become less and less employable as the weeks go by. Some are eligible to receive unemployment checks for 99 weeks. Skills can wane, contacts dry up and motivation declines over the nearly two-year period. “I can definitely see how that might play against them,” Lujan said.

Volunteer work can hone skills, extend contacts and lead to jobs with those organizations, Lujan says. “We recommend they volunteer or take education courses or update Microsoft Office skills.”

Even those armed with good résumés and contacts should be prepared for a recovery that remains as slow as it is steady. “Companies laid people off and cross-trained those who were left,” Lujan says. “It’s the ‘other duties as assigned’ thing.” Many of those companies are slow to re-hire because they’ve learned they can do the job with fewer people, he adds.

For those who bemoan a so-called jobless economic recovery, Schwenke says a larger perspective might offer hope. While some traditional jobs might be fewer in number, other job sectors grow, she says.

Sooner or later, companies that realize increased demand for goods and services hire more people. But Lujan doesn’t see robust activity in that arena for more than a year. “We’ll be in this another 18 months,” he says. “Mesa County’s always been behind the curve.”