Recent data paint a cautiously optimistic picture of a gradually, but steadily, improving job scene nationally, in Colorado and in Southwest Colorado. The actual numbers have to be taken with a boatload of caveats, but the trend seems unmistakable. We are finally ridding ourselves of the Great Recession.
A report released Friday by the state office of Government, Policy and Public Relations showed Colorado’s unemployment rate dropped from 5.8 percent in May to 5.5 percent in June. That is not a huge change, but still a significant one for a single month. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showed Colorado’s unemployment dropped by 1.4 percentage point over the last year, from 6.9 percent in June 2013 to 5.5 percent last month. That is compared to 6.1 percent for the nation overall.
The federal BLS breakdown by county is current only through May. It shows La Plata County at 4.3 percent unemployment, beating the statewide rate of 5.8 percent, while Montezuma County was a tenth of a percent point higher, at 5.9 percent.
On the surface at least, those are not bad numbers. Historically, economists have often held that 4 percent unemployment represents “full employment.” The idea is that even in a booming economy, individual choices and circumstances will keep that many people out of work at any given moment.
The problem is that, in and of themselves, unemployment numbers do not always convey enough information to be meaningful. Are they seasonally adjusted? (The above numbers are not.) How do we measure the number of workers who have given up and are no longer looking for a job? How many people are working but underemployed – skilled or white-collar workers making do by flipping burgers? Does a drop in the unemployment rate also mean folks are getting better jobs or higher pay?
Then, too, how many of these numbers simply may not mean much of anything? In May, Hinsdale County – Lake City – had an unemployment rate of 3.1 percent, meaning all but a handful of that county’s slightly more than 800 residents had jobs. That is no doubt good, but does it really tell us anything about Colorado?
At the same time, two of the priciest places on the planet, Aspen and Telluride, are in counties tied for second place with May unemployment rates of 9.8 percent. The highest in the state was Costilla County in the southern San Luis Valley. The oldest county in Colorado, and one of the poorest, it had an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent.
What has to mean something, however, is the overall trend. And in that the data show change that is both clear and hopeful.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website has graphs depicting the U.S. labor force, employment, unemployment and the unemployment rate during the last 10 years. The effect of the Great Recession of 2008-09 is not only dramatic, the graphs drive home the idea that the situation was worse than first thought. While the recession officially ended in 2009, things really began to turn around in 2010, and from there, the graphs show steady improvement.
But just as it was hard to see the full effects of the recession as it unfolded, ongoing improvement in the employment picture is hard to perceive on a day-by-day basis. For that, the BLS graphs come in handy.
Or we could rely on a traditional Southwest Colorado measure of economic vitality and simply count the cars with out-of-state plates.