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Colorado faces a mismatch between willingness to work and availability of work

Coloradans are eager to get working again, so much so they are running ahead of employer enthusiasm to put them back to work, according to an update Friday from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The labor force participation rate represents the share of working-age civilians, 16 or older, who are employed or actively looking for employment. In Colorado, it climbed back to 68.6% in February, just shy of the 68.7% rate a year ago before the pandemic hit the economy hard.

“Colorado’s labor force participation rate of 68.6% ranked as the third highest nationally in February,” said Ryan Gedney, the state’s senior labor economist during a news call Friday morning. Only two states, South Dakota and North Dakota, reported more industrious populations last month.

But when it comes to the number of nonfarm jobs that employers have restored, the state ranks 30th, having regained 219,100 of the 375,800 jobs lost in March and April of last year. Colorado workers are willing, but Colorado’s employment situation remains weak.

Colorado’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate remained stuck at 6.6% for the second month in a row in February, above the U.S. rate of 6.2%. Colorado is tied with Alaska for the 15th highest unemployment rate in the country, and unemployment here remains double that of regional rivals, Idaho and Utah, which are at 3.3%and 3% respectively.

Comparing Colorado to states with lower labor force participation rates, however, isn’t necessarily fair. If Colorado had Utah’s 67.1% labor force participation rate, the state’s unemployment rate would be well under 5%, Gedney said.

Looking at the bigger picture, having a ready supply of available and willing workers is a good thing for a recovering economy, Gedney said. The caveat is that at some point, in the not-so-distant future, more opportunities to work must also present themselves.

If that doesn’t happen, the unemployed could become discouraged and drop out of the labor force, or relocate to places where jobs are more plentiful. Workers will leave the Colorado labor pool, dry off and go do something else or move somewhere else.

So how did the state do when it came to adding payroll jobs last month? Colorado employers added 5,200 jobs, which in normal times would be a respectable showing. But when the state faces a deficit of 156,700, that kind of growth represents slow going.

Continuing a hiring rebound that started when COVID-19 cases started falling and restrictions loosened, the leisure and hospitality sector added 9,700 jobs last month on a seasonally-adjusted basis, with those gains concentrated at restaurants and hotels. Educational and health services added 2,200 jobs on the month, and manufacturers 100 jobs.

Beyond those three, every other sector in the state shed jobs after adjusting for seasonality. Especially worrisome was the loss of 2,900 jobs in professional and business services, a source of high-paying white-collar jobs. Employment there held up well last year, in part because many of those jobs were able to shift to remote work arrangements.

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