Mesa County jobless rate ends 2018 on a high note

Curtis Englehart
Curtis Englehart

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The end of 2018 saw the highest unemployment rate in Mesa County in nearly two years.

But one official considers 2018 a successful one overall for the local labor market and hopes some of the trends continue in 2019, among them a growing work force and increasing demand. Meanwhile, the jobless rate also could retreat.

“I think we’re going to see all three of those in 2019,” said Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate rose nine-tenths of a point in December to 4.9 percent in Mesa County. That’s not only the highest rate in 2018, but also the highest rate since joblessness was 5.3 percent in February 2017. In December 2017, the rate stood at 4.1 percent.

For December 2018, Mesa County payrolls decreased 893 to 72,878. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work increased 643 to 3,742. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, slipped 250 to 76,620.

Over the past year, however, payrolls have increased 987 or nearly 1.4 percent. The ranks of the unemployment have increased 690. The labor force has grown 1,677, but remains well below a peak level of 84,000 in 2009.

Englehart said he was puzzled by what he said was a bigger than expected increase in the unemployment rate in December, but attributed part of the gain to the effects of colder weather on seasonal employment in construction and grounds maintenance.

Moreover, a growing labor force can skew jobless rates when more people are looking for work, Englehart said. There’s been a growing number of people relocating to Mesa County, especially from the Front Range of Colorado, before securing jobs. “We’ve seen a lot of that this year.”

While the unemployment rate tends to garner the most attention, other numbers reflect generally improving labor conditions, Englehart said.

Labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center increased in 2018. For December, 484 orders were posted, a drop of almost 17.3 percent from the same month last year. But for all of 2018, 8,163 orders were posted. That’s a gain of nearly 6.7 percent compared to 2017.

The 157 initial claims for unemployment insurance filed in Mesa County in December brought the total for 2018 to 1,966. That’s a decline of almost 8.8 percent from 2017.

While the jobless rate climbed in December to its highest level in nearly two years, the rate also fell in May to 2.9 percent, its lowest level in more than a decade.

Looking ahead, Englehart said the monthly unemployment rate could spike again in January as it historically has in part because of layoffs following the holidays. But as the year progresses, he expects incremental improvements in labor conditions as efforts to diversify the Mesa County economy continue to pay off.

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also increased in neighboring Western Colorado counties in December — a half point to 3.7 percent in Garfield County, six-tenths of a point to  4.1 percent in Montrose County, seven-tenths of a point to 4.4 percent in Delta County and eight-tenths of a point to 5.4 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate rose two-tenths of a point to 3.5 percent in December as the number of people looking for work exceeded those reporting themselves as employed.

Nonfarm payrolls increased 9,800 with gains in education and health services, professional and business services and manufacturing.

Over the past year, the unemployment rate has increased a half point even as nonfarm payrolls have swelled 75,400. The largest employment gains have occurred in the professional and business services; leisure and hospitality; and trade, transportation and utilities sectors.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls rose three-tenths of an hour over the past year to 33.6 hours. Average hourly earnings increased $1.50 to $29.63.