Mesa County labor trends offer some encouragement

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County retreated in July even as increasing labor demand in several industry sectors offers encouraging signs of job growth.

“I think it’s going to be slow growth. But I think we’re at a point where we’re going to see some growth,” said Suzie Miller, an employment specialist with the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE), the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County fell three-tenths to an even 10 percent in July.

Despite increases in May and June, the jobless rate has trended downward for most of 2011 after spiking at 11.9 percent in January. At this time last year, the rate stood at 10.3 percent.

Miller attributed part of the lower rate to a shrinking work force. But at the same time, demand has increased for truck drivers and machinists. Demand also remains strong for health care positions, she said.

According to the CDLE estimates for July, Mesa County payrolls increased 322 to 68,479. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work fell 218 to 7,622. Compared to July 2010, however, the overall work force in the county has dropped 2,972 to 76,101.

While a shrinking work force remains a concern, Miller said labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the center has increased. As of Aug. 19, 1,758 job orders had been posted so far this year. Each job order usually involves two to three openings, but sometimes more. Those numbers are “drastically” better than 2010 and 2009 and not too far below prerecession levels in 2008, she said.

In addition to posting more job orders, Miller said the center recently hosted two hiring events for local companies looking for truck drivers and others to work in oil and natural gas fields. The companies have expanded their operations to other areas of Colorado as well as North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming and need more workers.

Labor demand also has increased for machinists and other skilled workers in production and manufacturing, she said.

Some of the job openings involve higher wages, paying $20 to $22 an hour, she said.

Because of the qualifications involved and the fact the pool of available labor isn’t as deep, some employers encounter difficulty in filling openings, Miller said.

But she hopes the increase in labor demand draws people back to the area or encourages those who’ve dropped out of the labor force to resume job searches. “I think that’s an encouraging sign for people.”

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also dropped in neighboring Western Colorado counties in July: down six-tenths to 8.8 percent in Delta County, down five-tenths to 8.2 percent in Garfield County, down eight-tenths to 9.8 percent in Montrose County and down two-tenths to 5.5 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained unchanged at 8.5 percent even though nonfarm payrolls grew 3,200.

Over the past year, Colorado payrolls have increased 18,600 as gains in the private sector more than offset government layoffs.