Mesa County labor trends reflect improving conditions

Curtis Englehart
Curtis Englehart

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The unemployment rate continues to drop even as the labor force grows in Mesa County, diverging trends that reflect improving conditions.

The seasonally unadjusted jobless rate dropped seven-tenths of a point to 3.3 percent in April and the labor force topped 75,000 for the first time in four years, according to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

“You’ve always got to look at both numbers,” said Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

With a less pronounced spike in the jobless rate at the beginning of the year and three consecutive months of declines since then, there’s a good possibility the unemployment rate could slip below 3 percent this summer, Englehart said. “It really sets us up in a good place to have a very successful year in our local economy.”

A tightening labor market makes it more difficult for employers to find qualified applicants for job openings. But at the same time, more people from outside Mesa County are looking for work in the county, Englehart said. Moreover, efforts continue to steer local high school and college graduates into the market, he said.

For April, Mesa County payrolls increased 671 to 72,606. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work decreased 495 to 2,487. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, rose 176 to 75,093.

Over the past year, payrolls have grown 2,496 even as the ranks of the unemployed have dropped 214. The jobless rate stood at 3.7 percent at this time last year. The labor force has increased 2,282, or 3.1 percent, but remains below the peak of 84,000 in 2009.

Englehart said there’s been increasing labor demand from not only such seasonal industry sectors as construction and hospitality, but also office management support, manufacturing and transportation.

A total of 730 job orders were posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center in April, a 16 percent increase over the same month last year. Through the first four months of 2018, 2,886 job orders have been posted. That’s a 35.1 percent increase over the same span in 2017.

Meanwhile, 140 initial claims for unemployment insurance were filed in Mesa County in April, down 12.5 percent from the same month a year ago. Through the first four months of 2018, 691 claims have been filed. That’s a decrease of 7.5 percent over the same span in 2017.

The unemployment rate historically trends down in Mesa County in the summer, and Englehart said he expects that to occur this summer. In fact, the jobless rate could drop below 3 percent in coming months. “I do think that’s a possibility.”

It becomes a matter in a tight labor market to help employers to find enough qualified applicants to keep pace with increasing labor demand, he said. The workforce center offer a variety of services to help employers recruit and screen applicants. “We’re here so we can help.”

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate also fell in neighboring Western Colorado counties in April — eight-tenths of a point to 3.2 percent in Montrose County, seven-tenths of a point to 3.4 percent in Delta County, six-tenths of a point to 3.5 percent in Rio Blanco County and a half point to 2.6 percent in Garfield County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate edged down a tenth of a point to 2.9 percent in April as nonfarm payrolls increased 7,200.

Over the past year, the Colorado jobless rate has increased three-tenths of a point as the number of people looking for work has outpaced payroll gains.

The average workweek for employees on private nonfarm payrolls has held steady at 33.7 hours over the past year. Average hourly earnings have increased $1.18 to $28.91.