You don’t have to be an expert to know that the pandemic has been the biggest story of the economy over the last year. And that story continues to be written daily as cities, states and nations seek to find the right balance of public safety and economic stimulus. As vaccinations become more widespread and public health restrictions ease, cautious hope is on the horizon for reaching the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and returning to economic prosperity.
Prior to the pandemic, the economy and job market of the Pikes Peak region was enjoying more than half a decade of sustained strength and growth with a recent surge of development and investment. While the road to recovery will certainly be long, the regional economy is already showing signs of its resilience in early 2021.
“I would argue Colorado Springs is doing better than the nation and with respect to jobs regained, even better than Colorado,” says Tatiana Bailey, director of the UCCS Economic Forum.
In fact, she and other local leaders see opportunity rising from the difficulties of the pandemic. “When you have a disruption as big as this one, you’re going to have a high level of innovation and, therefore, transformation,” Bailey says.
At the close of 2019, the unemployment rate in Colorado Springs stood at just 2.8%, compared to 3.4% nationally (not seasonally adjusted). In January, 2021, the rate was 7.2%, compared with 6.9% statewide and 6.3% nationally. The UCCS Economic Forum projects El Paso County unemployment will average 6.2% in 2021 as compared to 5.7% for the entire state and 6.7% for the nation as projected by the Colorado Office of State Planning and Budgeting. “This assumes the region will regain jobs at a faster rate than the nation, but not necessarily the state,” according to the Forum’s 24th Annual Economic Update.
Due to rapid population growth, substantial private and public investment, and growth in most industries, El Paso County saw the creation of 7,308 new jobs in 2019, an increase of 26%, according to the UCCS Economic Forum. However, overall job losses took place in five sectors over 2020, most notably in the sectors of accommodation, food service and retail, as well as leisure and hospitality.
Bailey acknowledges that it will take time, probably more than this year, to regain all of the local lost jobs, but she says unemployment numbers are not reflecting the full story yet. “We’ve had an increase in the labor force or people coming back into the labor force at a much faster pace than the nation,” Bailey says. “You want that because it means when the economy reopens, these people are actively looking for work and businesses can find workers.”
As of February, the jobs in most demand were for registered nurses, tractor-trailer truck drivers, sales representatives and software developers. Also among the top 10 were jobs in retail sales, computer systems engineering and management.
“There are over 10,000 open positions in El Paso and Teller County, so the number of job openings are coming back,” says Traci Marques, executive director and CEO of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center (PPWFC). “Last fall, we looked at the jobs that were open a year ago, and they’re very similar to the same job descriptions and the skill sets that are needed.”
Health and social assistance, professional and technical services and construction have been El Paso County’s top three growth industries in recent years. Pre-pandemic projections showed job growth outpacing the number of available workers over the next five years, and that trend continues at present in fields such as nursing, healthcare and technology.
While an increasing diversity of industries in the last few years has bolstered the resilience of the local economy, the Springs’ strong military and defense sectors have been a great asset in providing overall stability throughout the pandemic.
“Military jobs didn’t go away, which means the people who are in the military continue to buy houses and goods,” Bailey says. “They felt secure. Even the Department of Defense contracts didn’t go away. That has really helped us out.”
Cecilia Harry, chief economic development officer of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, sees opportunity for other high tech industries, such as cybersecurity and computer systems, to adapt and innovate as a result of the pandemic. She cites semiconductors as an example and points to the importance of microchips in the supply chains of a wide variety of products popular and necessary for consumers. “We’ve seen how that supply chain has been disrupted during the pandemic,” Harry says. “So if we can help companies know what they need from a supply chain perspective to be successful, then we’re helping an existing business navigate the pandemic and its consequences in a growth-oriented way. And we can position our region to be a permanent player in a space that was disrupted by the pandemic.”
Bailey says many important trends were accelerated by COVID. “Work from home, e-learning, a little bit more emphasis on training people for the jobs of today,” she says. The innovative approaches are positives for both companies and employees with a wide range of skill sets.
Marques says that last year PPWFC helped more than 13,000 people find jobs with an average annual wage of $39,786. Average wages overall in El Paso County increased from $50,492 in 2018 to $52,624 in 2019, according to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW).
Marques sees opportunity for job seekers to adapt across different industries. “I think we have a great opportunity this year to really look at re-skilling and retraining our workforce,” she says, pointing to free online training resources at ppwfc.org as well as job fairs and tools for job seekers. “It’s really trying to help businesses find the people they need and helping people who may not have a job right now get the skill sets they need to fill those jobs.”
Many higher-paying positions require some level of college education, but Marques says there is also a consistent need for midlevel workers in fields such as IT services, bookkeeping and construction. Bailey also points to growth in finance, insurance and real estate, professional and business services, healthcare and social assistance. “We don’t have all our eggs in one basket, and that is a good thing,” Bailey says. “We also have seen an exceptionally high level of collaboration around economic recovery. That collaboration and our small-town network in a relatively high population city has enabled us to target assistance where it’s needed most.”
The Chamber & EDC drew new companies to Colorado Springs that accounted for 1,349 new jobs in 2020 with an average wage of $54,168. Southwest Airlines was a noteworthy addition to the Springs, and Amazon began filling new jobs related to its 4-million-square-foot distribution and sorting center. The facility will be the largest building in Colorado Springs and is expected to open in summer 2021. “Amazon’s selection of Colorado Springs for two massive projects is a huge win for the community,” says Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Chamber. “They will serve as an anchor at the Peak Innovation Park and create more than 1,000 jobs for our community.”
“I think the Colorado Springs region has every reason to be very optimistic about its future and emerging from the pandemic,” Harry says.“The reality is that we have had a lot of really great things in place prior to the pandemic related to job growth, population growth, a great reputation for quality of life. And the good news is that there’s no reason why those things can’t continue to be true.”
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