Unemployment on the rise across state; some uneasy about Craig's economy

By the numbers

Unemployment rates* in Moffat County

November 2008: 4.2 percent

October 2008: 3.6 percent

November 2007: 3 percent

Unemployment rates* in Routt County

November 2008: 4.4 percent

October 2008: 3.9 percent

November 2007: 3.4 percent

Unemployment rates* in Rio Blanco County

November 2008: 3.1 percent

October 2008: 2.8 percent

November 2007: 2.1 percent

Unemployment rates* in Colorado

November 2008: 5.7 percent

October 2008: 5.3 percent

November 2007: 3.9 percent

Unemployment rates* in the U.S.

December 2008: 7.2 percent

November 2008: 6.8 percent

December 2007: 4.9 percent

*Statistics for state and local unemployment are not adjusted for seasonal employment variations. Although the state will figure seasonal differences into statewide numbers, it does not calculate variations for county numbers. National numbers were only available in an adjusted figure, which lowered the actual unemployment somewhat.

Source: Colorado Department of Labor and Employment

Moffat County's unemployment is on the rise, but it remains under state and national averages and within what economists consider good economic conditions.

How long the Western Slope can stay above water is anyone's guess, however.

Although the energy industry has helped keep the Western Slope economy afloat, the creeping waves of financial uncertainty may soon break here, as well, a state expert said.

Joseph Winter, senior economist for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said natural resource exploration and production, along with pipeline construction, has made the Western Slope "the most robust labor market across the state" in recent years.

"But the slowdown in the economy, and I'm talking nationwide, has settled in Colorado," Winter said. "The collapse of the commodities market, not only with oil prices but with all energy prices, and the collapse of the credit market has started to slow the (energy) industry, too.

"The (economic) trends are slowing in Colorado, and although your area is the last to feel its effects, you're in the same boat we are on the Front Range."

In short, Winter's suspicion is that things will get tougher - everywhere - before they get better, but the economy is near impossible to predict, he said.

"I do not know, because we are in a fairly unprecedented set of circumstances with the credit market the way it is," he said. "Economies do not work without money, and that's the problem now."

As an economic indicator, unemployment rates can help track business success as well as how much money businesses are comfortable spending.

Colorado is in a downturn, and while Northwest Colorado is doing better than the state average, its immediate future appears dimmer than its immediate past.

Colorado's preliminary unemployment rate in November 2008 was 5.7 percent, compared to 5.3 percent in October 2008 and 3.9 percent in November 2007.

Moffat County's unemployment was 4.2 percent in November 2008, 3.6 percent in October 2008 and 3.0 percent in November 2007.

In all cases, the local unemployment rate and the increase in unemployment was less than the state's.

However, Colorado is doing better than the nation as a whole.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the national unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in December 2008, up from 6.8 percent in November 2008 and 4.9 percent in December 2007.

Colorado won't have preliminary December numbers until Jan. 27, Winter said.

On a regional picture, Moffat County's unemployment is about the same as Routt County, which sits at 4.4 percent. Rio Blanco County remains one of the most highly employed Colorado counties with 3.1 percent unemployment.

However, even Rio Blanco, which has a well-established energy economy, experienced employment changes last year.

Although 3.1 percent is low, the rate increased a full percentage point - from 2.1 percent - since November 2007.

Winter said the general consensus among economists is that the market's natural rate of unemployment is between 4 and 5 percent. When an area's unemployment falls in that area, it means economic conditions generally are favorable.

By that standard, Northwest Colorado is in good shape, whereas Colorado is slightly higher than it would like to be. Both are lower than the nationwide picture, where the labor market is hurting.

Jonny Murray, veterans employment representative for the Colorado Workforce Center in Craig, said it seems issues with local employment are mostly a factor of business owner fears.

"All we have to fear is fear itself, at least in this area," Murray said. "It's a perception thing. They're worried about the future and so maybe they're holding back somewhat, which is understandable given the state of things."

There is hope for the Western Slope holding steady, however.

The energy industry, Northwest Colorado's biggest economic boon, is not bleeding jobs in Colorado.

Winter said state records show there are about 29,500 jobs in natural resources and mining, including companies that provide support services to those industries. That is up about 3,500 new jobs from a year ago.

The three industries with the most job losses in Colorado are construction, with 6,600 jobs lost between November 2007 and November 2008; financial activities, such as banking and real estate, with 4,600 jobs lost in that time; and manufacturing, with 3,900 jobs lost.

Winter could not share what industries lost the most jobs in Moffat County because it would involve divulging confidential tax information.

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