Mesa County jobless rate retreats further

Curtis Englehart
Curtis Englehart

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County has dropped to its lowest level in nine years as hiring increases across a broader range of industry sectors.

While the labor force remains well below the peak levels of the boom that preceded the bust, other indicators reflect market improvement, said Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction. “We’re seeing signs we’ve not seen since pre-recession.”

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County fell six-tenths of a point to 3.2 percent in April.

The jobless rate has dropped more than two points over the last two months to the lowest level since the rate also stood at 3.2 percent in April 2008. In April 2016, the rate stood at 5.9 percent.

For April 2017, Mesa County payrolls increased 548 to 68,928. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work fell 455 to 2,259. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, edged up 93 to 71,187.

Over the past year, payrolls have grown 916 even as the ranks of the unemployed have decreased 1,974. The labor force has declined 1,058.

Englehart said the distinction between the latest jobless rate and the same rate nine years ago is the labor force was 10,000 larger then at nearly 81,000.

Given the boom in regional natural gas development that preceded downturns in energy production and the overall economy, it could be a long time before the labor force returns to that level, Englehart said. But there are other indications of improving conditions.

Labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center has increased, he said.

For April, 629 orders were posted, 293 of them for full-time positions. Compared to the same month last year, the number of job orders increased nearly 43 percent and the number of orders for full-time positions rose almost 61 percent, he said.

While labor demand remains strongest for openings in the health care sector, there’s been increasing demand for positions in sales, office and administrative support and transportation. There’s also been a pickup in the construction and extraction sectors, Englehart said. “It looks to be a little bit more diversified.”

Even as labor demand has increased, claims for unemployment insurance benefits have decreased, he said.

For April, 160 initial claims for unemployment benefits were filed in Mesa County. That’s down nearly 39 percent from the same month a year ago. For April 2017, there were 768 unemployment benefit recipients in Mesa County, that’s down almost 46 percent from the same month in 2016, he said.

Employers are generally more confident in filling job openings, some left vacant for years, as well as expanding operations. And they’re finding qualified applicants to hire, Englehart said.

That leads Englehart to believe the monthly unemployment rate will continue to trend downward, although there’s usually a spike between May and June attributed in part to high school and college graduates entering the workforce in search of summer jobs. “I think the positive trends will continue.”

For April, seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also dropped in neighboring Western Colorado counties: down three-tenths of a point to 2.3 percent in Garfield County, down six-tenths of a point to 2.8 percent in Montrose County and down nine-tenths of a point to 3.2 percent in Delta County and 3.4 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate retreated another three-tenths of a point to 2.3 percent, the lowest level for the state since the statistical series began in 1976.

Nonfarm payrolls edged up 1,800 with gains in the leisure and hospitality and trade, transportation and utilities sector more than offsetting losses in the education and health services and construction sectors.

Over the past year, the statewide jobless rate has dropped a point as nonfarm payrolls have grown 45,700. The largest year-over-year gains occurred in the leisure and hospitality; trade, transportation and utilities; and professional and business services sectors.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls has increased four-tenths of an hour to 33.6 hours. Average hourly earnings have increased 30 cents to $27.72.