Mesa County jobless rate trending downward

Phil Castle, The Business Times: 

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County continues to decline as hiring heats up along with the spring weather.

Drops in the jobless rate in each of the last three months as well as a separate measure of labor demand offer encouragement labor conditions are improving and an overall work force that’s dropped more than 6,000 over the past four years will stablize. Speed bumps on the road to recovery remain, however: New claims for unemployment insurance jumped in April to their highest level in three years.

“The majority of the indicators are positive,” said Sue Tuffin, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

According to estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemploment rate in Mesa County dropped six-tenths of a point to 8.2 percent in April.

Since spiking at 9.2 percent in January, the monthly jobless rate has dropped a full point to its lowest level since September. At this time last year, the rate stood at 9.1 percent.

For April 2013, Mesa County payrolls rose 560 to 71,295. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work fell 479 to 6,345. The overall work force, which includes the employed and unemployed, was virtually unchanged at 77,640.

Over the past year, payrolls have edged up 134 and the ranks of the unemployed have dropped 795. The overall work force has shrunk 661.

Labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center remains at its highest level since 2008, before the effects of downturns in energy development and the economy were fully felt.

From the beginning of this year through the end of April, 1,225 job orders were posted at the center. That’s three less than the same span in 2008, Tuffin said. For April 2013, alone 289 job orders were posted at the center.

“I think things are starting to pick up,” Tuffin said, citing increasing seasonal hiring by landscaping companies, home improvement stores and construction contractors.

Consequently, Tuffin said she was surprised by the 407 new claims for unemployment benefits in Mesa County in April, the highest monthly number in three years. Since there were no significant layoffs, she’s uncertain why jobless claims increased.

Tuffin said she expects the monthly unemployment to continue to drop until the weather cools again later this year. While recovery in the labor market and overall economy in Mesa County continues to lag behind other areas of Colorado, she expects that situation to change as well and move toward what she called a “normal picture.”

Low jobless rates and booming energy development led to a surge in the Mesa County work force. But a sudden drop in energy exploration and the economic recession that followed led to an exodus. Between April 2009 and April 2013, the overall work force has dropped 6,110.

Tuffin doesn’t necessarily anticipate large gains in the work force anytime soon. “I think it’ll stabilize.”

Elsewhere in Western Colorado, seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also retreated in four neighboring counties: down six-tenths to 7.4 percent in Delta County, down seven-tenths to 9.7 percent in Montrose County, and down eight-tenths to 6.8 percent in Garfield county and 6.1 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped another two-tenths of a point to 6.9 percent in April. At this time last year, the jobless rate stood at 7.5 percent.

Nonfarm payrolls grew an estimated 11,600 in April with all of that increase coming from the private sector. With the latest gain, nonfarm payrolls are now only 800 below the pre-recession peak of nearly 2.37 million in May 2008.

Over the past year, nonfarm payrolls have increased 63,200 with the largest gains in the professional and business services, leisure and hospitality and education and health services sectors.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls decreased eight-tenths of an hour to 34.3 hours over the past year. But average hourly earnings increased 62 cents to $25.49.