Mesa County wages below U.S. average, but rising

Suzie Miller
Suzie Miller

Phil Castle, The Business Times

While average wages paid in Mesa County remain well below the national average, local pay has increased as the economy has recovered.

“That’s a really good indicator,” said Suzie Miller, business services manager at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for May 2013, the average hourly wage paid in Mesa County was $19.85, about 11 percent below the nationwide average of $22.33.

A separate quarterly census of employment and wages for the first quarter of 2014 pegged the average weekly wage in Mesa County at $764, which equates to $19.10 an hour for a 40-hour week.

Compared to the first quarter of 2013, however, average weekly wages increased $24, a gain of more than 3.2 percent. And compared to pre-recession levels in the first quarter of 2008, average weekly wages have increased $48, or 6.7 percent.

Miller said a multitude of factors affect prevailing wages, among them the major industry sectors in a given economy and business and labor conditions, but also educational attainment and even lifestyle choices. Comparatively lower wages can serve to attract new businesses, she added, although labor costs are only part of the calculation in relocating or opening new operations.

According to the BLS data for May 2013, the average hourly wage paid in Mesa County was among the lowest for metropolitan areas in Colorado. Hourly wages averaged $26.76 in Boulder and $20.48 in Greeley. Only the average hourly wage in Pueblo was lower at $18.75.

In Mesa County, average hourly wages varied considerably by occupational group: from $46.13 for management positions to $10.47 for food preparation and service jobs.

Out of 22 major occupational groups, 12 groups paid significantly lower wages in Mesa County than respective national averages. Local wages were higher than national averages, however, in the building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; farming, fishing and forestry; and transportation and material moving groups.

The lower average hourly wage in Mesa County could be attributed in part to a heavier concentration of occupational groups that tend to pay lower wages, including food preparation and service; installation, maintenance and repair and sales. A number of other groups that tend to pay higher wages were underrepresented in Mesa County, among them the computer and mathematical, management and production groups.

According to a quarterly census of employment and wages for the first quarter of 2014, average weekly wages in Mesa County ranged from $280 in the arts, entertainment and recreation industry to $2,019 for management positions. Compared to the first quarter of 2013, average weekly wages were up for all but three industry groups: finance and insurance, management and transportation and warehousing.

While the overall average number of businesses counted in Mesa County declined 50 over the year to 4,663 during the first quarter, overall wages increased nearly $32.7 million to almost $579 million.

Miller said improving economic conditions in Mesa County as well as other areas of Colorado have helped to pull up local wages.

While the cost of living in Mesa County remains slightly below the national average, the difference is only slight.

Miller said Mesa County received an overall composite score of 97.6 in a national cost of living index calculated for the second quarter of 2014, just below the average score of 100. While the cost of utilities remained below the national average, measures of housing, health care and transportation all topped the national average, she said.

The number of people with at a least bachelor’s degree in Mesa County has increased nearly 28 percent over the past decade, Miller said. But as a proportion of the overall population, college graduates have increased just 1 percent and remain below national and state levels.

Lifestyle choices constitute still another factor affecting wages, Miller said. Although some people move elsewhere for higher wages, many others are willing to trade higher wages for such  amenities as scenic surroundings and recreational opportunities.

Economic development efforts to attract new businesses and expand existing businesses continue, though, to promote the creation of higher-paying jobs as well as diversify the economy, Miller said. Comparatively lower labor costs offer an advantage in recruiting businesses, she said, but are only one factor in the decision.

The availability of an educated and trained work force remains another important factor. Mesa County is responsive to industry needs, Miller said, in the short-term training offered through Western Colorado Community College as well as other programs