Mesa County jobless rate drops to lowest level in four months

Phil Castle
Business Times

The Mesa County unemployment rate has dropped to its lowest level in four months even as labor demand continues to increase.

“On a snapshot basis, it’s a much improved picture,” said David Porfirio, manager of business services at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor (CDLE), the unadjusted jobless rate dipped three-tenths to 9 percent in September. That’s the lowest reading since the rate stood at 8.9 percent in May and matches the rate reported at this time last year.

For September 2010, Mesa County payrolls were estimated to total 71,669, up  537. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work fell 146 to 7,112.

Porfirio said another measure of the Mesa County labor market reflects increasing labor demand. As of Oct. 22, 187 job orders were posted at the center, the highest number in 18 months. Assuming each job order represents just one job vacancy and those jobs are filled within a month, nearly 2,250 positions would be filled over the next year at that pace, he said.

While the number of job applicants registered at the center held steady at nearly 9,000, there are more job openings, Porfirio said. “The prospects have improved dramatically.”

Dividing the number of job applicants by the number of job orders yields a ratio that measures labor demand. The lower the ratio, the higher the demand. As of Oct. 22, the ratio stood at 48-to-1, the lowest in a year, Porfirio said. At this time last year, the ratio often topped 100-to-1.

Porfirio said labor demand has increased in a number of industry sectors. The ratio of job applicants to job openings for sales and customer service positions dropped to 32-to-1. The ratios were only slightly higher for truck driving jobs at 36-to-1 and maintenance jobs at 43-1. Even in the hard-hit construction sector, the ratio as of Oct. 22 was 71-to-1. Last year, the ratio in that sector topped 300-to-1.

While Porfirio foresees improving labor conditions, gains will be slow. “The improvement is going to be very gradual. It’s not going to be a smooth ride.”

Hiring for the upcoming holiday season likely will be flat, he said, as merchants remain cautious in their hiring because of what’s likely to be deeply discounted prices and only marginal margins.

Unemployment rates were mixed in neighboring Western Colorado counties in September, slipping a tenth to 8.3 percent in Delta County and 5.5 percent in Rio Blanco County, while edging up a tenth to 9.8 percent in Montrose County. The jobless rate remained unchanged in Garfield County at 8.5 percent.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate climbed to 8.2 percent, up a tenth from a revised 8.1 percent for August. The latest rate was the highest since June 2009, when the rate stood at 8.3 percent.

“Colorado’s economy remains relatively flat,” said Donald Mares, executive director of the CDLE. “We have not seen the economic jumpstart that everyone is eager to see, and these last several months have underscored the fact that little activity is an expected part of a slow recovery process. We are hopeful that upcoming seasonal hiring may have a positive impact in the months ahead.”

According to the latest results of a monthly survey of Colorado businesses, nonfarm payrolls edged up 200 in September to nearly 2.2 million with gains in five of 11 industry sectors.

Professional and business services added a net 1,400 positions, followed by gains of 900 in other services, 700 in government, 400 in leisure and hospitality and 100 in manufacturing.

Employment declined a net 1,200 jobs in financial activities; followed by losses of 800 in eduction and health services; 700 in trade, transportation and utilities; and 600 in information. Payrolls held steady in the construction and mining and logging sectors.

Over the past year, nonfarm payrolls in Colorado have declined 22,200, or about 1 percent.