Mesa County jobless rate drops to lowest level since 2007

Curtis Englehart
Curtis Englehart

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The unemployment rate has dropped to its lowest level in Mesa County in more than a decade as payrolls swell and the overall labor force grows.

“This is very encouraging,” said Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

At the same time, though, employers face a shallower labor pool from which to draw and could have to step up their recruiting efforts to fill openings, Englehart said.

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate retreated four-tenths of a point to 2.9 percent in May, according to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. That’s the lowest level since the rate stood at 2.8 percent in May 2007. At this time last year, the jobless rate was 3.4 percent.

“It’s definitely a good sign going back to those pre-recession numbers,” Englehart said.

It’s equally important, he said, that the unemployment rate has dropped not as a result of a shrinking labor force, but despite a growing one.

For May, Mesa County payrolls increased 958 to 73,692. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work slipped 295 to 2,185. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, grew 663 to 75,877.

Over the past year, payrolls have grown 2,667 as the ranks of the unemployed have dropped 290. The labor force has increased 2,377 or 3.2 percent. The labor force remains below its peak of 84,000 in 2009, but Englehart said that number is within reach if job growth continues.

A measure of labor demand continues to increase. Englehart said 765 job orders were posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center during May, a 13.3 percent increase over the same month last year. Through the first five months of 2018, 3,651 job orders were posted at the center, a 30 percent gain over the same span in 2017.

Demand remains strongest in the health care sector, but there are job openings in construction, office and administrative support and transportation, Englehart said.

Economists generally consider an unemployment rate in the low 4 percent range an indication of full employment —that all those who’re able and willing to work do so. Englehart said that measure can vary by area, but a 2.9 percent jobless rate definitely reflects full employment.

That makes it more difficult for employers to fill openings, he said, because most applicants aren’t unemployed and looking for a job, but employed and looking for a change. Employers must sell the benefits and perks of their operations.

The workforce center can help, he said, in organizing hiring events and offering other resources to help employers recruit employees. It also helps, he said, that more applicants from the Front Range of Colorado and even out of state are attracted to the Grand Valley by its quality of life.

While the unemployment rate could level out, Englehart said he expects labor conditions to continue to improve.

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate also fell in three neighboring Western Colorado counties in May — six-tenths of a point to 2.8 percent in Delta County and 3 percent in Rio Blanco County and a half point to 2.7 percent in Montrose County. The jobless rate edged up a tenth of a point to 2.7 percent in Garfield County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate slipped another tenth of a point to 2.8 percent as nonfarm payrolls increased 7,700.

Over the past year, the jobless rate has increased two-tenths of a point as the number of people looking for work has outpaced payroll gains. Nonfarm payrolls have grown 72,800 with the biggest gains in the leisure and hospitality; professional and business services; and trade, transportation and utilities sectors.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls lengthened three-tenths of an hour over the past year to 34.1 hours. Average hourly earnings increased $1.24 to $28.40.