Mesa County jobless rate retreats

Phil Castle, The Business Times
The unemployment rate in Mesa County has begun to retreat as seasonal hiring increases along with spring temperatures.

But the outlook is tempered by a downturn in energy development that also affects support services.

Curtis Englehart, manager of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction, offered a mix of good and bad news in his analysis of the latest labor estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County slipped two-tenths of a point to 5.4 percent in February, the latest month for which numbers are available. March estimates are scheduled for publication April 15.

The February decline usually occurs in Mesa County after the jobless rate spikes to its highest level of the year in January because of seasonal layoffs after the holidays.

The unemployment rate actually edged up in February last year to 6.3 percent. But the decrease this year showed that was an anomaly, Englehart said. “That’s good to see.”

For February 2016, Mesa County payrolls increased 1,367 to 68,330. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work slipped 77 to 3,931. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, climbed 1,290 to 72,261.

Over the past year, payrolls have grown 768 even as the ranks of the unemployed have dropped 580. The overall work force has edged up 188, but remains well below the peak labor force in Mesa County of 84,000 in November 2009.

Englehart said seasonal hiring has picked up as construction, landscaping and hospitality businesses ramp up staffing. But slowing in natural gas and oil development related to lower commodity prices has led to layoffs in the energy sector as well as support businesses, he added.

For February, there were 334 initial claims for unemployment insurance in Mesa County, Englehart said. That’s up 33 from January, but down from the 352 claims reported for the same month last year.

Meanwhile, 400 job orders were posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center during February, Englehart said. For January and February, 782 job orders were posted. Both numbers remain below those for the same time periods last year.

Englehart said he expects monthly unemployment rates to continue to trend down as the weather warms. But rates are also likely remain higher in Mesa County than other areas of Colorado in part because of the greater influence of the energy sector on the local economy.

There’s hope some workers who’ve lost jobs in the energy sector will transfer their skills to fill openings in the manufacturing sector, he added.

February labor numbers constituted something of a mixed bag for neighboring Western Colorado Counties. The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates fell two-tenths of a point to 4.5 percent in Montrose County and remained unchanged at 5.3 percent in Delta County. The jobless rate edged up a tenth of a point to 3.8 percent in Garfield County and jumped seven-tenths of a point to 5.4 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate retreated another two-tenths of a point to 3 percent to match the lowest level since March 2001. In February 2015, the rate stood at 4.1 percent.

Nonfarm payrolls increased 2,500 for a 52nd consecutive month of gains. That’s just shy of the 58 straight months of payroll gains between September 1991 and June 1996. For February 2016, gains in the education and health services and leisure and hospitality sectors more than offset loses in the professional and business services, financial activities and manufacturing sectors.

Over the past year, payrolls have increased 63,000 with the biggest gains in the leisure and hospitality, education and health services and construction sectors. Employment in the mining sector has declined.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls has slipped more than an hour to 33.2 hours. Average hourly earnings have increased 40 cents to $27.14.