Mesa County jobless rate up, but improvement expected in 2013

Suzie Miller

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The monthly unemployment in Mesa County has increased for a third consecutive month, concluding a fourth quarter slowdown in hiring activity.

But the jobless rate at the end of 2012 was still slightly lower than the end of 2011. Continued, albeit slow, improvement in labor conditions is expected for 2013.

“Even if it’s little, tiny, baby steps toward progress, I think that’s where we’re headed,” said Suzie Miller, business services manager at the Mesa County Workforce Center.

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County rose two-tenths of a point to 8.6 percent in December. With gains in each of the last three months, the jobless rate has climbed to its highest level since August. In December 2011, the rate was slightly higher at 8.7 percent.

According to the CDLE estimates, Mesa County payrolls actually increased 513 to 74,086. But the number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work also increased — 231 to 7,003. The overall workforce, which includes  the employed and unemployed, increased 744 to 81,089.

Over the past year, Mesa County payrolls have increased 1,754, a 2.4 percent gain. The number of those counted among the unemployed has gone up 127. That means the overall workforce has grown 1,881.

After a comparably robust third quarter, hiring activity slowed during the fourth quarter, Miller said. “Things came to a near crawl, it felt like.”

The number of job openings posted at the center was down 10 percent compared to the fourth quarter of 2011. The decline reflects hesitancy on the part of some employers to hire as well as a seasonal slowdown in construction activity, she said.

Despite an unhappy ending, the story for 2012 considered as a whole was more upbeat, Miller said. Jobless rates were lower each month than the corresponding month the year before. “It just kind of shows that slow, but steady, growth.”

Labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the center held steady, she said. A total of 2,741 job orders were posted during 2012, three less than 2011.

A number of signs point to further improvement, including strong interest among employers in a Feb. 5 job fair, Miller said. All but two of 40 spaces have been filled by employers actively recruiting new hires, she said.

A natural foods grocery store jobs recently opened in Grand Junction and construction soon will begin on a number of projects, including a new building for the workforce center.

“I think we expect to see, hopefully, some growth,” she said.

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate also increased in four neighboring Western Colorado counties in December:: up two-tenths to 7.6 percent in Garfield County, up a half point to

8.6 percent in Delta County, up six-tenths to 6.5 percent in Rio Blanco County and up seven-tenths to 10.6 percent in Montrose County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate edged down a tenth of a point to 7.6 percent in December, the lowest level in three years.

The jobless rate stood at 7.9 percent in December 2011.

The latest decline in the jobless rate was caused by a larger increase in the number of people reporting their status as employed than the number of people actively participating in the labor force.

Nonfarm payrolls actually decreased 2,400 in December with the biggest losses in the education and health; professional and business services; and trade, transportation and utilities sectors. Construction and government employment increased.

Over the past year, Colorado payrolls grew 51,300 with the largest gains in the education and health, leisure and hospitality and professional and business services sectors. Information employment decreased.

The average workweek for employees on nonfarm payrolls has lengthened nearly an hour over the past year to 35.5 hours. Average hourly earnings have increased $1.06 to $25.26.