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RBC | Rio Blanco County residents received a detailed update on the state of the local economy earlier this month via Zoom presentation by Nathan Perry, PhD, associate professor of Economics at Colorado Mesa University. He detailed historic, current and projected trends for the region in areas like employment and wages, available labor force, demographics, population and other categories. Perry also discussed the economic impacts of COVID-19.
EMPLOYMENT & COVID IMPACTS
Professor Nathan Perry discussed the specific impacts of COVID-19 on the region’s economy, noting that Western Slope communities were outperforming the Front Range for much of 2020, though RBC suffered hits to employment following the initial “lockdowns,” losing approximately 600 jobs between October 2019 and April 2020. Some of those losses according to Perry were likely due to seasonal unemployment, not just lockdowns.
“The good news is, we’ve seen a march up in employment back to those initial numbers,” said Perry. He also pointed out that RBC unemployment numbers fluctuate a lot more than in other counties, mostly because the energy industry represents such a significant percentage of overall GDP.
When comparing the impacts of COVID to the most recent economic downturn, Perry said “for energy-driven counties, this is a walk in the park compared to about four years after the energy crisis.”
In terms of employment, RBC and the Western Slope fared better than the rest of the state since the onset of the pandemic, a reversal of the standard trend. However, the economic impacts of COVID “caught up” with the region starting in November when case counts spiked.
Perry said the change is visible when looking at unemployment claims, which jumped up around the same time case counts increased.
Perry said he considers unemployment claim stats to be “the most important data point.” Unfortunately the numbers are not particularly reliable since unemployment fraud has become a major problem in the state.
WAGES & JOB CHANGES
“Mining” which includes both coal and oil and gas development as well as other types of mining is the largest industry in RBC, representing 60-80% of GDP for the county depending on the year. In the second quarter of 2020, mining employers paid about $11.7 million in wages.
“Every time I pull this data set it always amazes me that it’s so big compared to other places,” said Perry. Mining jobs were also high-paying, with an average weekly wage of $1,750. Other large industries included Health care and social assistance, paying $4.6 million in quarterly wages, public administration ($4.4 million), and educational services ($3.1 million). Other services, ex. public admin, which paid $2.7 million in quarterly wages was by far the highest-paying industry, with an average weekly wage of $3,056. Perry explained the disparity is not unusual in small counties, since a single high paying employer easily can skew the average.
Other high-paying industries included utilities ($1,860/wk), construction ($1,022/wk), transportation and warehousing ($1,193/wk), and professional and technical services ($1,071/wk).
In the second quarter of 2020, the largest employment and wage gain for RBC came from health care and social assistance, which added 25 jobs. Perry called health care a great career path, emphasizing the industry is growing on the local, state and federal level. Manufacturing, mining, and agriculture forestry, fishing and hunting also saw increased employment numbers year-over-year.
Accommodation and food services lost 50 jobs, the largest loss of any industry. Other industries that saw decreases in overall employment included public administration (-30), construction (-27), educational services (-26), and administrative and waste services (-26).
Overall there were positive wage gains, and negative job losses. “The reason for that is the wage gains were in high-paying industries, whereas the job losses were in low-paying industries,” said Perry, pointing to food services as an example where “you can lose a lot of jobs and still have an increase in wages year-over-year.”
He also took time to note that statewide, farm employment has remained stagnant despite a big increase in hemp production. In contrast, new small business start-ups have been on an upward trend both in Colorado and nationally.
MINING PROJECTIONS & GDP
Unsurprisingly, the forecast for extractive industries in RBC and the region is not positive. Perry estimated that collectively, Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties could lose 2,800 jobs if coal is eliminated entirely. That would represent a 9% reduction in employment, and a 26% drop in total GDP for Rio Blanco County. He said the numbers are considered the worst case scenario, and were based on a model in which all four coal mines in the area shut down.
Despite negative projections, Perry said there is still some hope for a percentage of the coal industry thanks to potential alternative use innovations, “so not burning it for power, but using the carbon to manufacture different goods,” he said.
Perry also explained that a 50% reduction in oil and gas production over the next 10 years is a realistic expectation, which would mean another large hit to GDP. “When you think about the future, this is the key industry, and so diversification ends up being the name of the game,” he said.
Perry talked about outdoor recreation as a good option for diversification, making it clear that the approach would have to involve more than just tourism, which he says cannot make up for projected losses to mining on its own.
“When you think outdoor rec, think bigger than just tourism,” said Perry, highlighting the success of Montrose and Mesa counties in utilizing tourism to attract new businesses and jobs.
“They sell the area as this outdoor recreation wonderland and then they come visit here and they say ‘hey, why don’t you bring your fly-fishing manufacturing facility here to Montrose?’” he illustrated, reiterating that “tourism can lead to job-recruitment which can lead to an outdoor industry.”
“Outdoor rec exists in tourism, it can exist in manufacturing, it can exist in service, and so I think when you’re looking over the next 10-15 years, I would strongly suggest you think in terms of this package deal,” said Perry, also noting “it’s working for Mesa and Montrose, they’re diversifying a lot of economic output that used to exist with energy, with outdoor rec, and even remote workers.”
Although the outdoor rec recruitment model as a whole may not be able to fully replace GDP losses from mining, Perry called it a “logical step to help solve the problem” and said “I think Rio Blanco has a lot going for it in that space.”
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