Local and state employment treads water

Job growth is not keeping pace with population increase in county

Stability is the key word in 2012 when it comes to Colorado’s economy. That was the message from the state’s Department of Labor and Employment when March unemployment numbers were released this month.

It has taken a long time for the state to get to a point where it was regularly adding jobs month after month, and now it seems to have reached that point, said Alexandra Hall, chief economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

But while Colorado and La Plata County steadily added jobs in the first three months of 2012, it hasn’t been enough to budge the unemployment rate. And in La Plata County, job growth has not kept pace with population increases, putting a damper on economic-growth projections.

In La Plata County, non seasonally adjusted unemployment rates hovered between 7.2 and 7.3 percent in the first quarter of 2012. That’s down from 8.1 percent unemployment in January and February 2011 and 7.6 percent unemployment in March 2011.

In non seasonally adjusted numbers, the state’s unemployment rate averaged 8.3 percent in the first quarter. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained flat at 7.8 percent through January, February and March.

From a statewide perspective, stagnant numbers aren’t necessarily negative, but reflect a situation where the labor force is growing at the same pace as jobs are created, Hall said.

“We have people re-entering or entering the labor force for first time over the past six months,” she said.

But looked at through another lens, the picture isn’t quite as rosy, at least on the county level, said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata Economic Development Alliance.

According to employment numbers and population projections, the number of people looking for work or working continues to fall as a share of the county’s population.

That number, called the normal labor participation rate, is 61 to 63 percent in a healthy economy. La Plata County’s rate fell from 57 percent last year to 56 percent this year.

So even though the county is adding jobs, it’s not adding enough of them, Zalneraitis said.

Colorado is seeing the most job growth in education, health care, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality, Hall said.

In La Plata County, though, so few jobs have been added that it’s hard to see trends in job growth.

Health care and social assistance is one of the only sectors in La Plata County that has added a significant number of jobs in the last two years. That sector added about 160 jobs from 2009 to 2011, according to state wage and employment data.

Looking ahead, economists remain conservative about the state’s growth trajectory in 2012.

The state’s economic growth will be affected by the development of Colorado’s renewable-energy cluster this year, as well as how the summer shapes up in terms of rainfall and wildfires, according to a report by the Colorado-based Business and Economic Research firm. A steadily growing population provides a large base of workers and consumers to boost recovery, the report said.

CBER researcher Gary Horvath predicted job growth will be higher than last year, but he doesn’t expect any significant declines in the nation’s unemployment rate. About 175,000 jobs per month will be added in the country this year, he said.

In her projections, Hall predicted that if Colorado continues to grow at its current rate over the next year and a half, the state would recover all jobs lost from The Great Recession by mid-2013.

But even as the economy grows, it is “quite possible” the state could add jobs and still see the unemployment rate climb, Hall said. That’s because there still are many people who have dropped out of the labor market who may restart their job searches as the economy improves.

“The more positive signs, the more people are likely to enter the job market,” she said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com