Good news on jobs tempered by history

For years, economists and local business leaders have been searching for the bottom of the economic trough — the point at which there’s nowhere to go but up.

By most indicators, it was in 2012, the year Richard Wobbekind, executive director of the Business Research Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder Leeds School of Business, said Grand Junction appeared to have “weathered the worst” of a national recession that lingered in western Colorado far longer than the rest of the state.

Wobbekind is an annual visitor to Grand Junction, sharing results of economic data compiled for the Colorado Business Economic Outlook. But even if 2012 was the worst, succeeding years have been uneven. Some economic indicators look worse than others. Business filings, real estate transactions, rate of foreclosures, property values, capital investment, hotel occupancy, unemployment and sales tax and severance tax receipts haven’t trended in a positive direction at the same time.

Spotty economic performance has made it hard to embrace proclamations that brighter days are ahead. It’s been a series of baby steps — small gains washed away by unanticipated downturns. Last year around this time, we lamented the fact that Grand Junction was the only one of the state’s seven major employment regions to experience a loss of jobs.

But there’s this bright spot: The county’s unemployment rate dropped from 5.3 percent in February to 3.8 at the end of March — one of the most significant drops the Mesa County Workforce Center has seen in a long time.

But any news on the jobless front always carries a major caveat. At its peak in 2008, the county’s workforce included nearly 12,000 more workers than today. Unemployment was as low as 2.7 percent in May 2007. Today’s workforce, 71,332 , is down about 1,300 workers from a year ago. So a bigger percentage of a smaller number of workers is employed.

Our employment rate is down because we’ve lost so many jobs. Many unemployed people either moved or quit trying to find jobs. But the latest figures suggest some stabilization. Job orders — requests from employers to the Workforce Center for applicants for a specific job — are up significantly.

Maybe we’re turning the corner. With low unemployment and more jobs than workers to fill them, perhaps Grand Junction can become a destination for job seekers.

But until we can get our workforce numbers back to where they were a decade ago, we’re still only inching back from contraction. The best way we can build upon this good news is to continue to build a community that attracts a bankable workforce — young, educated, energized minds — and a diverse array of employers across all sectors of the economy.


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