What’s Working: Why Colorado’s growing work force seems like it’s shrinking

Quick links: 3.1% unemployment rate | Age and the work force | Gas, home inflation | Labor unrest in Colorado | Take the poll

Colorado’s unemployment rate is back over 3%, making August the highest rate in more than a year. But that didn’t faze the state’s labor department economist.

“While the state’s 15-month streak with an unemployment rate below 3% was broken last month, Colorado’s rate has remained within a narrow range of 2.6% to 3.1% since April 2022,” said Ryan Gedney, principal economist for the state’s Department of Labor and Employment. 

At 3.1%, that’s about where Colorado was before pandemic disruptions caused all sorts of turmoil for job seekers and employers. It’s better than the U.S. rate, which increased to 3.8% in August, from July’s 3.5%.

But what the latest data for August also showed was that about 4,700 more people were unemployed, compared with July. This figure comes from a limited number of surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which then estimates how much the size of the labor force has changed each month. It doesn’t come from the number of Coloradans filing unemployment claims to get paid benefits each week — that figure is up, too, though Gedney added that the levels are “holding steady.”  

“I think we might see the unemployment rate tick up a bit,” he said. “But honestly, I think it will stay within this range. Whether it’s meaningful or not is yet to be determined. As we’ve talked about, around this time every year, we’re going through our annual revisions … so it’s possible that we could see these numbers come down, like the unemployment rate.”

That actually happened last year, when revisions changed Colorado’s original unemployment rate every single month last year. The changes were credited to overestimating how many people were in the labor force. (Remember this chart?)

So far this year, Colorado is at it again, adding more people to the labor force than ever before, at least based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates. The state’s labor force added 2,500 people last month.

The state’s labor force is the largest it’s ever been with 3.26 million Coloradans working or looking for work. And there are still plenty of jobs out there, with the number of jobs added each month averaging 2,200 for the past year. That’s slower growth than the average 4,500 added monthly between 2017 and 2019. It’s also slower growth than the U.S., which grew 2% in August from a year ago, compared with Colorado’s 1.5%.

Colorado’s growth in nonfarm jobs has been slower than the United States, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. (Screenshot)

Gedney is counting on revisions to the labor data, and he predicts Colorado will ultimately show it’s growing faster than data currently suggests. 

“I do believe that once we go through the annual revisions process, Colorado’s growth rate will either equal or exceed the U.S.,” he said.

More from the August jobs report:

  • Leisure and hospitality added the most jobs. That’s probably not a surprise. The surveys were done in early August when families were still vacationing, before the kids went back to school. The category added 4,700 private-sector jobs in August. But take that number with a grain of salt. Revisions changed July numbers from a negative 3,500 jobs to a positive 2,200 jobs.
  • Government loses most jobs. On the other hand, August had government jobs falling by 3,500. But something to consider, according to Gedney, is that the estimate was made in early August  (Aug. 6-12, to be exact), so opposite the leisure and hospitality trend, “it may not reflect typical school staffing for the month.” 
  • Metro Pueblo’s unemployment rate rises to 4.9%. That was the highest among the state’s seven metro areas. Fort Collins had the lowest, at 3.2%. The metro-area rates are not seasonally adjusted and compare to Colorado’s not seasonally adjusted rate of 3.5%. >> More

Growing jobs, growing workers and growing older

Ask Colorado’s State Demographer Elizabeth Garner about why open jobs outnumber people who are looking for one and she’ll say it’s about age. The size of the labor force is very much connected to the state’s population. And even though we’re still growing faster than many other states, we’re getting older and have more workers doing things like, well, retiring.

Her explanations make sense. Split Colorado’s population into three age groups and people in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 are now a smaller part of the population than they were 20 years ago. 

Here’s an animated chart that shows how the age groups have changed and will change between 1990 and 2050. The data is based on estimated growth from the last U.S. Census count combined with births, deaths and population migration. 

“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 — was 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.”

And look how age 55-plus has grown! Back in 1990, Coloradans age 55 and older made up 17.6% of the population. Today, this group comprises 28.2%. And by 2050, they’ll be 33.5% of the population.

Meanwhile, those ages 25 to 54 will shrink to 41.1% of state residents. Overall, Colorado’s population is still growing and expected to continue. 

Garner has been tracking the state’s population for more than two decades and What’s Working will dig more into demographic trends next week.

Your chance to see the State Demographer: Garner will be presenting at this year’s SunFest, the first-ever 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. 

It’s getting more expensive here: Housing, gas price updates

The latest U.S. inflation saw consumer prices up 3.7% from a year ago August. That’s higher than the 2% sought by the Federal Reserve. The central banking system, which has been raising interest rates for the past two years, however, does not plan to increase them this month, Reuters reported. 

Denver inflation has been higher than the U.S. all year, but we won’t know the latest numbers until next month.

It’s likely up, based on the national stats, which blamed the rise in the Consumer Price Index to gasoline. While travel club AAA reported that gas prices slumped after Labor Day, those are back up in Colorado this week with a gallon of regular gas going for $4.03, up about 10 cents in a week (and up 33 cents from a year ago).

A motorist fills up the fuel tank of a vehicle at a Costco warehouse Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Sheridan, Colo. (David Zalubowski, Associated Press)

Skyler McKinley, a AAA spokesman, called the state’s rising prices “a function of sustained, abnormally high regional demand and some of the supply constraints experienced nationally and internationally.” 

While OPEC is cutting production through the end of the year, gas prices are expected to be “well above $3,” but the switchover to the winter blend will immediately save consumers about 15 cents a gallon, he added.

Also rising nationwide: the price of shelter, an index that saw higher motor vehicle insurance, costlier airline travel, pricier new cars and higher prices for household furnishings.

What we do know is that the median price of single-family homes sold in Colorado last month increased 1.9% to $629,995, from $618,000 a year ago, according to the Colorado Association of Realtors. 

Townhomes for sale in a Frisco neighborhood, Sept. 11, 2023, in Summit County. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

But some areas fared better than others, like Broomfield County, which saw median sales prices increase 13.5% to $760,500. Area Realtor Kelly Moye attributed it to affordability, at least compared to nearby Boulder, which was down 4.3% to $794,000. 

El Paso County saw median sales price drop 2% to $480,000 last month. There are fewer houses for sale but also a lack of buyers in the era of 7% mortgages, said Patrick Muldoon, a Colorado Springs Realtor.

“Weekly we receive 5-10 inquiries now for property management because a seller cannot sell,” Muldoon said in a statement. “So, despite the above numbers showing values dropping 2.1%, we have owners upside-down on home mortgages and cannot sell. That is new, and something we have not seen for many years.”

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

United Auto Workers members attend a rally in Detroit, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. The UAW is conducting a strike against Ford, Stellantis and General Motors. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

➔ Colorado union activity. There’s a lot of labor unrest nationwide with the United Auto Workers union going on strike Friday, as well as the ongoing writers and actors strike in Hollywood. In Colorado, it continues to be a busy year for unions. The latest: 

  • Southwest Airlines Pilots Association is planning an “informational picket” at 5 p.m. Wednesday at McGregor Square in Denver. The union said in a news release that they’ve been bargaining in good faith for a new contract since September 2020 and filed for federal mediation a year ago. Union members voted to strike in May and “are ready to upon release from the National Mediation Board.”
  • Another Denver Starbucks voted 15-1 to unionize on Tuesday. In a news release, union members at the University Hills location seek livable wages and better treatment. The Starbucks location joins more than 350 nationwide that have organized, according to labor officials with Starbucks Workers United. 
  • Colorado Kaiser Permanente health care workers waiting on contract. The Service Employees International Union Local 105, which represents more than 3,000 Kaiser health care employees in the state, voted to strike earlier this month if no agreement is reached when the current contract expires Sept. 30. Kaiser’s latest proposal was “still very far apart,” from what the union wants in terms of livable wages and addressing staffing shortages, SEIU communications director David Fernandez said in an email. One final bargaining session is next week. The union must give Kaiser a 10-day notice before a work stoppage.
Denver Startup Week signs are seen Sept. 21, 2022, on the 16th St. Mall in Denver. The weeklong event marked its 11th year of free presentations, panels, job fairs and more. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

➔ Still free, still one week: Denver Startup Week. The annual entrepreneurial event known as Denver Startup Week is hosting 200 panels and sessions this year and it all starts Monday. Held downtown near the Daniels & Fisher clock tower, there are tracks for founders, developers, products and people. And most of all, what every budding entrepreneur needs: networking opps, like a daily happy hour. >> Register for free

➔ Colorado labor agency gets $5 million grant. More funding is heading Colorado’s way from the federal government to help unemployed workers get into better quality jobs. The state’s $5 million is part of the U.S. Department of Labor’s $57 million QUEST grants, which stands for Quality Jobs, Equity, Strategy and Training Dislocated Worker Grants.  >> News release

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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