What’s Working: Who will fill Colorado’s jobs in the future?

Colorado employers have struggled to fill jobs for the last two years. That may be finally starting to ease.

The number of job openings in Colorado fell to its lowest level in more than two years in July, according to the latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. At a ratio of 1.9-to-1, the state can no longer say there’s two jobs for every unemployed Coloradan. 

But that’s not necessarily a sign that employers found enough workers, adjusted to lower levels of staff or have hit an economic wall and stopped hiring. There are still plenty of job openings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which shows numbers higher than before the pandemic. For most of the past two decades, Colorado has had less than one open job for every unemployed worker. There’s still nearly a 2-to-1 ratio and that’s a very tight labor market, said Brian Lewandowski, executive director of the University of Colorado’s Business Research Division.

“The high number of job openings continues to be a signal of strong demand for workers,” Lewandowski said. “The decrease in job openings was expected in the current economic environment, but the slowdown is not isolated to just a few sectors of the economy. Nationally, the published data on job openings by industry shows a decrease in the openings rate nearly across the board.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also revised the job openings data lower for June, putting the level at 181,000 job openings instead of the previously reported 190,000 for Colorado. July levels were at 179,000. That downward trend is expected to continue, “but not a sharp decline, not a cliff,” Lewandowski said in an email. 

The state continues to face labor challenges and that will continue if only because Colorado’s population is getting older, as Colorado State Demographer Elizabeth Garner pointed out in last week’s What’s Working column. 

“It’s math,” Garner said. “In the 1990s into the 2000s, we had the largest share of our population — and the fastest growth in our population — in the age groups with our highest labor force participation. Now, we’ve got our fastest growth in some of our lowest labor force participation rate age groups, the 65-plus or even the 55-plus.”

Shrinking or growing?

Here’s another layer of concern. Residents under 25 years old. Birth rates are down. The under-25 age group is becoming a smaller part of the population as well. Here’s another chart based on state demography data: We reached the peak number of annual births back in 2007. It’s gone down since then but has improved since the start of the pandemic:

“Birth rates don’t sound like fun, but it really does impact our number of kiddos,” Garner said. “And that impacts everything right now, from K-12 and pretty quickly, it can impact higher ed and then our labor force.”

The thing about age and work is that most adults work. In fact, the vast majority of Coloradans between the ages of 25 and 54 either have a job or are looking for one. Participation rates are typically in the mid to high 80% and in July, this age group had a participation rate of 87.4%, the highest since 1995 when baby boomers were in that age group.

But when growth of this age group slows due to fewer births or migration that would buoy this population, that could create even more challenges for employers in the future as the number of jobs increase but the potential employees don’t. 

Already, the state’s labor force participation rate for all adults has shrunk from its peak in the late 1990s, when it was in the mid 70s. Last month, Colorado’s labor force participation rate was at 68.7%.

What’s age got to do with it?

The number of people working in Colorado, just like the state’s population, is at its largest ever. But to get more people joining the labor force means attracting more workers on either side of the 25- to 54-year-olds. 

And there are hundreds of thousands more Coloradans younger than 25 and older than 54. Some are working, some are enjoying retirement, some have given up on finding work, many are in school and some are still wearing diapers. 

Older Coloradans are working longer now than in prior decades and well past the traditional retirement age of 65. This age group has the fastest-growing labor force participation rate of all age groups in the state, nearly doubling participation rates in the past 25 years. But because the size of the group is smaller, the growth hasn’t offset the shrinking labor force participation rate.

As Garner points out, those 65 years and older are part of the fastest growing segment of the state’s labor force. But it’s also one of the smallest if you’re counting heads.

In 2023, there were an estimated 203,700 workers age 65 and older. The under-25 crew was somewhere around 400,000. The other groups were much larger. Here’s another chart showing how active different age groups are in the labor force (the light green-colored lines): 

“We’ve seen the fastest growth in ages with some of the lowest labor force participation rates so that we just automatically assume our total labor force participation rate is going to fall,” Garner said. “If you look at the country, that’s what the country sees because the country is older than us. We’re the sixth-youngest state. Media should not say, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening to the state? Nobody wants to work anymore.’ … The question should be how do we stay productive into the future and what can we do to help people stay in the labor force longer or get into it earlier?”

The Colorado Sun’s SunFest includes a session with Colorado State Demographer Elizabeth Garner.

Think of a better question? Garner will be presenting at this year’s SunFest, the first Colorado Sun event convening speakers and panelists who shape the state’s future. SunFest is open to all What’s Working readers — plus there’s a big discount on tickets for Sun members. I’ll be interviewing Garner live and am taking thoughtful reader questions ahead of time — submit questions HERE. 

Why not try the four-day workweek?

To deal with the labor shortage and worker burnout, more companies are testing the idea of a shorter workweek. While a four-day workweek may conjure up a schedule with fewer but longer 10-hour days, that’s not what the latest trend is. It’s working four days for five days of pay, or as 4 Day Week Global, which is behind the worldwide pilot program, promotes it: “Get 100% of the work done in 80% of the time for 100% of the pay.”

An employee at Integrity Pro Roofing in Denver works on fixing a client’s roof. Bad weather can prevent construction work from being completed so it’s more challenging for seasonal companies to roll out a four-day workweek. But Integrity, which has operated on a four day week since early 2022 remains committed. (Provided by Integrity Pro Roofing)

In Colorado, a handful of companies are testing it out but one of them, Integrity Pro Roofing, an 11-person construction company in Denver, is sticking with it after implementing the shorter schedule more than a year ago. 

“We came out the other side and realized it hadn’t really affected our productivity. In a lot of ways, it actually increased our productivity and our efficiency,” said Rae Boyce, Integrity’s director of operations. “That extra day has really been pivotal for our team in spending extra time with their families and the people they love or getting extra rest or pursuing a hobby that may have been on the backburner for a long time.”

But can you imagine how a construction company that has a very seasonal schedule handles it? Read our earlier story: “Work 4 days, get paid for 5: Why some Colorado companies are moving to a 4-day workweek.”

➔ Where are the four-day week jobs? There’s a job board! >> 4dayweek.io

Take the poll

Inflation isn’t as crazy high as it was last year but prices are still going up. Add up the annual increases and the cost of eating out is up more than 20% since 2020. Have you found that to be the case? We’re looking for examples of the bills consumers are paying to eat out, buy food, book a trip or just buy something nice. Care to share? Take our survey and help us get a better idea of how consumer habits have changed in the past couple of years: cosun.co/wwhowmuch

Other working bits

➔ Mortgage brokers hurt most by higher interest rates. That’s not much of a surprise as anyone in the loan industry is facing higher monthly payments, or at least dealing with potential customers who are shying away from new loans. At least the Federal Reserve didn’t raise interest rates this week, though Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in a news conference he’s not ruling out future increases. After numerous hikes in the past year that lifted rates to their highest in 22 years, the Fed says there’s room to wait and see how the economy progresses.

But in the latest poll by Alignable, most small businesses still report struggling economically, including 58% of the Colorado companies that took the poll. That ranked the state the third highest for struggling business owners.

>> Results

➔ Kaiser health workers plan three-day strike starting on Oct. 4. With contracts expiring Sept. 30, the union representing 3,000 Colorado Kaiser Permanente health care workers and 75,000 nationwide said Friday that its members intend to go on a three-day strike over unfair labor practices. Service Employees International Union Local 105 said Kaiser failed to offer a “fair proposal for months” to address “unlivable wages and unsafe staffing levels.” Kaiser officials, meanwhile, issued their own statement that they have bargained in good faith and plan to continue to do so until a contract is reached. The company said it’s been ramping up staff in the past two years and offers workers salaries that are “up to 10% above market.” >> Kaiser, SEIU Local 105 statements

➔ Seafood restaurant in Denver sued for alleged discrimination. Landry’s Seafood House in Englewood is alleged to have violated workplace discrimination laws for failing to stop harassment of an Iranian employee who was “openly mocked” for her accent and “treated her differently than non-Iranian employees in ways that negatively impacted her and her pay,” according to a lawsuit filed Friday by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC is seeking compensation for the employee’s emotional pain and wants Landry’s to implement policies to eradicate future discrimination and require training for all managers and supervisors. >> KDVR report 

➔ $23 is the new minimum. At least for Bank of America hourly employees. The company said this week that it’ll roll out a new $23 minimum wage to part time and full-time workers nationwide in October. According to a bank spokesperson, the raise will affect 9% of its hourly employees and 3.7% of all of its workers nationwide. The bank, which employs 930 people in Colorado, has regularly raised its minimums for more than a decade, and it also committed to hitting $25 an hour in 2025. At that point, pay increases will total 121% since 2010, when the bank’s minimum was $11 an hour. Meanwhile, the national minimum wage is at $7.25, which is where it’s been at since 2009. 

Thanks for sticking with me for this week’s report. As always, share your 2 cents on how the economy is keeping you down or helping you up at cosun.co/heyww. ~ tamara 

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What’s Working is a Colorado Sun column about surviving in today’s economy. Email tamara@coloradosun.com with stories, tips or questions. Read the archive, ask a question at cosun.co/heyww and don’t miss the next one by signing up at coloradosun.com/getww

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