Mesa County jobless rate down, but so is labor pool

Suzie Miller
Suzie Miller

Phil CastleThe Business Times

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County has dropped to its lowest level in more than five years, but there are far fewer people in the local work force.

The latest labor estimates, although encouraging, still offer mixed economic news, said Suzie Miller, business services manager at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction. “We still have some work to do to really say we’ve got a strong economy locally.”

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County fell four-tenths of a point to 6.4 percent in May. That’s the lowest level since January 2009. At this time last year, the rate stood at 7.8 percent.

However, the overall labor force in Mesa County was estimated in May to total 76,329. That’s nearly 6,700 less than the figure for January 2009, Miller said. 

For May 2014, Mesa County payrolls increased 981 to 71,440. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work decreased 288 to 4,889. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, grew 693 to 76,329.

Over the past year, payrolls have held steady while the ranks of the unemployed and overall labor force both have dropped 1,183. The labor force has declined more than 9 percent since it peaked at 84,235 in November 2008.

The unemployment rate typically slips to one of its lowest levels of the year during May, in part as result of increased seasonal hiring, Miller said. But there are other indications of broader improvements in the labor market, she said.

Labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center has steady increased, Miller said, with 295 orders posted during May. That’s the highest number for May since 2008, she said.

Meanwhile, only 182 new claims for unemployment benefits were filed in May 2014, the lowest monthly figure since September 2008, she said.

The jobless rate could tick up in June in what’s something of a seasonal speed bump that reflects the influx of high school and college students in the work force looking for summer employment. 

While those students face challenges in finding jobs, Miller said local businesses have been receptive to a program under which they offer summer jobs to youth and serve as mentors. “It’s off to a good start.”

More generally, Miller said she expects labor conditions to continue to improve in Mesa County. “We’re moving in the right direction in a lot of ways.”

But until the labor force rebounds and the county unemployment rate moves below the state jobless rate, there will be a ways to go, she added. “We’re going to have to keep plugging away at this.”

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates fell in four neighboring Western Colorado counties in May: three-tenths to 5.4 percent in Garfield County, four-tenths to 4.3 percent in Rio Blanco County, four-tenths to 6.4 percent in Delta County, County and eight-tenths to 7.2 percent in Montrose County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped two-tenths of a point to 5.8 percent in May. That’s the lowest reading since the jobless rate stood at 5.7 percent in November 2008. At this time last year, the rate stood at 6.9 percent.

Nonfarm payrolls grew an estimated 9,100 in May with increased hiring in the construction, professional and business services and leisure and hospitality sectors. Nonfarm payrolls have grown 31 consecutive months in Colorado.

Over the past year, nonfarm payrolls have increased 70,500 with the biggest gains in the professional and business services, leisure and hospitality and education and health services sectors. 

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls slipped 30 minutes over the past year to 34.1 hours. Average hourly earnings increased 81 cents to $26.28.