Nearly 9,000 lost from county labor force
The Grand Junction area’s work force grew to an all-time high of 86,000 people five years ago, but by the end of 2013, nearly 9,000 workers and 8,000 jobs had fled, a local business leader said.
The exodus dealt the Grand Valley economy a triple whammy, according to county officials:
■ The brain drain depleted the local talent pool, causing businesses to hunt for skilled workers outside the area.
■ The absence of talent, in part due to inadequate educational infrastructure, is causing some businesses to locate elsewhere.
■ Many of the excised jobs were among the best paying in the area — losing them works to depress overall wages.
The review of work force numbers by the Grand Junction Economic Partnership came after Executive Director Kelly Flenniken attended a presentation at Vectra Bank where experts claimed no economy is fully healthy until it regains the jobs it lost in the Great Recession.
“Then, anything else becomes ‘net new,’ and you truly are out of the recession and rebounded, so to speak,” Flenniken said.
If that’s the case, Grand Junction could be many months from full recovery, she said, a fact that spurs on the partnership’s continuing work to recruit new and expanding businesses to the city.
The Mesa County Workforce Center has been tracking the data also, said Suzie Miller, center business services manager.
“With the shrinking workforce, that makes it more difficult for our local businesses to find qualified candidates,” Miller said. “It does make it difficult to attract other businesses (to the area).”
Within the city, peak employment was 79,210 people in April 2009. By the end of 2013, the jobs number was estimated at 71,974, a loss of 7,326 jobs, Flenniken said.
“That’s 7,326 jobs that we still need to create or grow so we can consider ourselves to be fully recovered,” she said.
The partnership is currently targeting the health care sector for potential business relocation candidates, she said.
Miller pushed back on the idea that all of the pre-recession jobs must be won back before the economy might be considered healthy.
“We were growing at a rate that really wasn’t sustainable,” Miller said. “When you look at housing, when you look at infrastructure, we were growing at a really rapid rate. If we can grow at a steady pace, but still be adding jobs, that would be great, but we just can’t seem to get that traction.”
Not all sectors saw a decline in the work force. Some remained steady while some split, with the number of jobs increasing but wages decreasing, or vice versa.
Agriculture was one sector that saw more jobs but lower wages, Flenniken said.
Some, like waste services, health care and transportation, saw across-the-board increases in employee numbers, wages and number of new enterprises, she said.
“That was interesting to us because health care is a target industry for us ... and we think we have the capacity to be an even bigger transportation, distribution, warehousing location,” Flenniken said.
The city’s claim to being a regional transportation hub was weakened in recent years as commercial developments in Glenwood Springs and Montrose started challenging the city’s retailing sector, which once dominated northwestern Colorado and eastern Utah, she said.
“We’ve lost our edge from a strict retail standpoint,” Flenniken said. “People don’t travel from Montrose to Grand Junction to go to Target anymore.”
The partnership is using the labor force data to fashion its future recruitment strategies, she said.
A vibrant art and culture economy, enhanced by the opening of the renovated Avalon Theatre, could provide a suitable replacement for what was lost in retailing, Flenniken said.
“Why don’t we re-generate a reason for people in western Colorado and eastern Utah to come here?” she asked. “Those people are going to spend money shopping, eating at restaurants, and staying at hotels. That will help us replace the retail sales tax revenue that we lost when Target moved to Montrose.”