Western Slope job outlook persistently poor
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – Despite a trickling of new job orders in energy and construction, Colorado’s Western Slope is coping with near-record jobless rates.
Grand Junction’s unemployment rate has nearly tripled in the past two years and stands at 11.5 percent. Mesa County reports that several hundred people apply for every job posted in Grand Junction. And the county’s average wage of $36,400 is nearly $9,000 less than the statewide average, the Denver Post reported Sunday.
“Now hiring” banners flapping on the sides of a restaurant, a tire store and a home-improvement center near Grand Junction’s Mesa Mall give the impression that the Western Slope’s largest city might be flush with jobs. But it has been topping unemployment rates for Colorado’s metropolitan areas.
Grand Junction hit a number of economic “worsts” since 2009, when an oil-and-gas-field downturn, coupled with the recession, tagged it with the highest percentage of job losses in the country – and the highest foreclosure rate in the state.
Before it declined from 11.9 percent in March, Grand Junction had the worst unemployment for any city in Colorado. Pueblo has slipped ahead by 0.1 percentage points.
A slight improvement is evidenced in job orders trickling in from the energy and construction industries and from seasonal hiring. But the “help wanted” signs have not translated to good news for those pounding the streets for jobs.
“I don’t have any hope anymore that it is going to turn around,” said Chester Malouf, who has been out of work for two years and has a zip-drive list of more than 250 businesses where he has applied and been turned down.
At the Mesa County WorkForce Center, job seekers flip through a free classified paper and pass 30 pages of items and services for sale before they hit a half page of “help wanted” ads.
“You just gotta keep looking,” said Jackie Kerchner, also out of work for two years, as she scrolled though business listings on a job center computer center.
At Mesa State College’s annual Career Fair last week, the number of employers with booths was 42 – less than half what it was several years ago. More than 200 job seekers who filed in the door in the first hour found giveaway pens and other promotional items – but only a smattering of job openings.
“I wouldn’t want to put the word out there that we have tons and tons of jobs,” said Sheree Walcher with Williams Exploration and Production, one of the larger companies in the energy fields around Grand Junction. She showed a list of about 15 open positions. Most are specialized and require a college degree, and not all are in Mesa County.
Gilbert Lujan, supervisor of the Mesa County WorkForce Center, said high unemployment and low job numbers make for busy and frustrating days at the center, where 8,800 job seekers are vying for handfuls of jobs. The latest count shows 17 job orders for construction and extraction, 10 in transportation, 14 in administration and office support and 24 in health care.
Health care has been the only field to stay stable through the downturn.
Previous experience in oil and gas compounds the frustration for those laid off from $70,000 to $90,000-a-year jobs. They now face the Mesa County average annual wage.
New construction in Mesa County has dropped. Mesa State College has two large construction projects under way. Grand Junction is doing a downtown facelift. There is a scattering of new homes being built. Most subdivisions on the books are on hold.
Mesa County’s 23 building permits issued this year represent a 20 percent drop from last year, also a down year for building.
“I have seen a lot of crews out trying to find work,” said Cesar Picazo, who recently was installing drywall in a new home on the Redlands. That home across from a golf course was originally going to go on the market for nearly half a million dollars but now will be marketed for less than $375,000, said Scott Homes owner Randy Scott.
“I’m just trying to keep my subcontractors busy and to get through the next one to two years until things get back to steady,” Scott said.
Joblessness has hit home in another way: Food banks and government food assistance programs are handing out food aid at record levels.
Some 15,597 individuals received food assistance in February, up more than 1,000 in recent months, said Karen Martsolf with the Mesa County Department of Human Services.
“We are continuing to see a high level of need in this community,” Martsolf said.
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