Mesa County jobless rate retreats

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Curtis Englehart

The Mesa County labor market hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic conditions, but a decreasing unemployment rate and growing labor force constitute what Curtis Englehart considers progress.

“We’re going to get there,” said Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

Moreover, one measure of labor demand has surged to record levels that not only surpass lagging supplies, but also exceed levels before the onset of the COVID pandemic, Englehart said. “The jobs are back. The demand is back.”

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate fell eight-tenths of a point to 5.7 percent in August, according to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. That matches the lowest level since October. At this time last year, the rate stood at 6.8 percent.

For August 2021, Mesa County payrolls increased 1,359 to 72,309. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work decreased 568 to 4,357. The labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, grew 791 to 76,666.

Compared to a year ago, payrolls have increased 1,331. The ranks of the unemployed have decreased 791. The labor force has grown 540.

Englehart said the jobless rate has steadily decreased and the labor force grown, although at a slower pace than he anticipated.

A federal stipend added to unemployment benefits was among the factors that’s made some people reluctant to rejoin the work force, he said. But other factors also have played roles, including difficulty finding child care and anxiety over going back to work in a pandemic.

Labor demand has surged, however. The number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center has doubled compared to a year ago, Englehart said. For August, 1,038 orders were posted, up from 536 for the same month a year ago. Through the first eight months of 2021, 7,597 job orders were posted. That’s up from 3,988 orders for the same span in 2020. 

While the gains reflect in part the effects of the pandemic in 2020, they also surpass the 5,300 orders posted in the same span in 2019 and what was at that time a strong economy with low unemployment, Englehart said. “The demand is there, we just need to make sure the supply is there to fill it.”

He expects more supply to become available, driving down the jobless rate and bolstering the labor force through the remainder of the year. “We’re still seeing progress.”

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also declined in neighboring counties in August: a half point to 4.6 percent in Garfield County, three-tenths of a point to 5.1 percent in Montrose County, two-tenths of a point to 5 percent in Delta County and a tenth of a point to 5.2 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate fell two-tenths of a point to 5.9 percent, dropping below 6 percent for the first time since March 2020.

Nonfarm payrolls increased 5,600 between July and August with the biggest gains in the leisure and hospitality; professional and business services; and trade, transportation and utilities sectors.

Over the past year, payrolls have increased 117,400. Over the past 16 months, Colorado has regained 293,400 of the 375,800 jobs lost between February and April 2020 because of the pandemic and related restrictions.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls remained unchanged over the past year at 34.3 hours. Average hourly earnings increased $1.50 to $32.19.