Long before COVID-19 and the ensuing labor crisis, the Colorado technology industry faced its own tight labor market.
Four years ago, when Colorado’s unemployment rate was 2.3%, a local manager at job recruiter Robert Half told me that for some tech jobs the rate was even lower — more like 1%.
Nineteen months into COVID, that rate isn’t too far off. It continues to be tough to hire tech workers. Local companies, like Denver online interior design firm Havenly, realized that to retain and recruit staff, it had to be more flexible and kept remote work options very open.
But the super large tech companies, including Apple, don’t seem as concerned. They’re facing pushback from workers who quite enjoyed working from home and now are being asked to return to the office. Others, including Google and Facebook, cut pay or considered doing so for their workers who moved out of Silicon Valley for more affordable housing. That may be good for Colorado.
“Tech professionals are in high demand in Colorado, and the unemployment rate in the tech sector in Colorado is definitely well below U.S. numbers,” said Andy Nordine, employment expert for Robert Half. “Currently in Colorado, there are more open tech jobs than there are qualified candidates. It is a candidate-driven market in which candidates are capitalizing by negotiating higher compensation, work-life balance, the tech they work with, and have options in terms of the companies they want to work with.”
While current data for Colorado wasn’t available, national data shows that the tech industry continues to experience very low unemployment rates. As of the second quarter, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has tech jobs at some of the lowest unemployment rates out there:
- Computer systems analysts, 1.7%
- Database administrators and architects, 0.3%
- Web developers, 1.7%
Tech jobs with the highest unemployment rates were computer programmers, at 4.7%, and network and computer systems administrators, at 4.4%. Colorado’s unemployment rate is 5.9%.
“The tech labor market was tight before COVID and it had been pulsating for years,” said David Bacon, namesake and founder of BWBacon, a Denver technical recruiting firm. “And while we all experienced a lockdown that froze things for several months, since then, we’ve seen the tech market shortage only intensify.”
Remote work is a big reason, he said, because even though tech companies were early adopters of remote work, not all allowed it. The pandemic changed that very quickly.
“It validated, particularly in tech, how a remote workforce could work very, very well,” he said. “But the flip side is that while companies have the opportunity to hire people in other areas, it’s the candidate pool itself that has a much bigger pond to fish in. It’s more like an ocean, or even seven oceans if you think about it.”
Andrew S., a tech worker who shared his labor story with What’s Working, is proof of that.
He decided to look for a new job in February. His then-employer kept losing workers forcing existing staff had to pick up the slack. He interviewed at many companies, big and small, in Colorado and elsewhere. He received several offers and started a new job after Labor Day that let him work from home.
Then his new employer asked him to work at the office twice a week. Around the same time, a company that previously turned him down reached back out again.
“They said they couldn’t find another candidate that was more qualified than I was and they wanted to make me an offer that was $20,000 higher than my new salary and was 100% remote,” he said. “I accepted the new offer and left the job I started after two weeks. I felt bad because they were counting on me, but I had to do what was right for me in the long term.”
In the economics of an actual labor shortage, wages go up. And according to an annual salary survey BWBacon conducts with Access Venture Partners, Denver tech salaries rose an average of 9% last year, or twice the U.S. average. A similar growth rate is expected for 2021.
It’s actually the remote workforce that is increasing a company’s need for workers, Bacon said, because making sure everyone’s set up from home increases IT demands on infrastructure, security and communication.
“Our salary guide was effectively superfluous after three or four months (because) salaries had already changed so much,” Bacon said. “The irony of an annual survey being updated quarterly is indicative of what we’re seeing in the tech market. But of course, that’s not sustainable.”
Speaking of tech jobs…it’s Denver Startup Week!
The state’s biggest free startup week (and largest nationwide) begins Monday with entrepreneurial how to’s, business pitch competitions and maybe most importantly: networking.
Denver Startup Week typically attracts hordes of entrepreneurs downtown. But what’s really nice are the smaller sessions where anyone can ask a question of speakers, which include startup celebrities like Boulder venture capitalist Brad Feld. You can also hang around afterward for extra convo. One of the keynote speakers includes Nicole LaPointe Jameson, CEO of esports firm Evil Geniuses.
With COVID-19 strains still at large, the event will be in person but also online with nearly every session streamed via Zoom. Something not online: the job fair. But precautions are being taken and capacity will be limited. >> REGISTER
In recent years, DSW has taken steps to be more mindful of attendees and their needs because hiring has long been a challenge, especially among technology startups. The job fair will have free child care available from babysitting app Nanno, the Denver startup that has expanded nationwide. And Nanno is offering child care on site or providing a 20% discount for home service. >> Nanno DSW details
So far, about 60 companies have registered to attend. But for workers seeking a new employer, some jobs are also being posted online by CO Startup Jobs. >> TECH JOBS
>> DSW JOB FAIR
Labor stories from all over
UPDATE: The big labor-issues story I promised is now available to read online. Check it out: Where have Colorado’s workers gone? Some say: “We’re still here. Hire us!”
Personal stories continue to roll in either by email or via What’s Working’s Labor Story form. If you read this column, hopefully you’re understanding that it’s not so simple to say the unemployed should just get one of the 127,170 open jobs advertised on the state’s job board.
I recently spoke to Chelsey Baker-Hauck, a co-founder and board member of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, a citizen-led organization that works with churches and other landlords to let people living in their cars have a safe place to park overnight. She had the perfect example of the mismatch between employers and potential workers.
“I was talking to Downtown Denver Partnership and they said, ‘Well, maybe we can get some of these people to take the jobs we can’t fill,’” Baker-Hauck said. “That’s not going to work because they can’t afford to park downtown.”
Of course, it’s not so easy for employers, especially smaller ones, to pay more, though they may have to if they want to stay in business.
Nate M. wrote in saying he’s a cashier at a gas station. He started at $9 an hour in 2015 and now makes $18, or $3 an hour more than Denver’s minimum wage. His employer needs workers but is still paying barely above the minimum wage to start, which is a tough sell when a company like In-N-Out is hiring at $17 an hour at its metro Denver and Colorado Springs locations.
“When I mentioned raising wages to my regional supervisor, he scoffed and complained that raising wages would just increase inflation,” he said. “However, it’s always been my opinion that minimum wage attracts minimum-quality candidates, and if they’re complaining about both quality and quantity of new hires, it seems to me there’s only one solution.”
And for another perspective, Brianna Hawn wrote in to plead for the public’s understanding. She works at a Highlands Ranch Domino’s Pizza, which is hiring. The shortage is stressful on workers, too.
“We have never had a staffing crisis like this before,” she said. “We are way overworked and it’s coming down to the point where we must take drastic measures such as closing delivery, turning down phone calls, and quoting a two-hour wait time for carryout as well as delivery. I’m not sure we can sustain this for long if people don’t start working again, places like ours are going to start shutting down.”
She stayed with Domino’s after the franchise owner offered her a big raise when she considered quitting.
“I love my coworkers and my job and I just want our customers to know that things are tough right now, but hopefully it won’t last forever,” she said.
→ 24-cent minimum wage increase — As required by the state constitution, the minimum wage is going up again on Jan. 1 due to inflation. It jumps to $12.56, from the current $12.32 an hour.
Unemployment: Overpayment appeals
So far, 916 people have appealed an overpayment levied on their unemployment accounts by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment three weeks ago.
That’s only 4% of the more than 24,000 people who learned that they must pay back some or all of their pandemic unemployment benefits.
Many cases seem to boil down to folks not providing certain documents, and thus CDLE ruling those accounts ineligible for pandemic benefits. This primarily impacted gig workers on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
But I heard from lots of workers who swore the documents were uploaded long ago.
If you never did it, it’s too late now. But if you have? There’s hope.
During the appeals process, a team will verify whether PUA-related documents may have been uploaded. If they find that’s the case and everything else is legit, the person’s situation will be corrected.
But the review only happens after the person appeals.
“As those reviews proceed, that team is finding in around 40-45% of cases that the claimant did upload their documents to an unrelated issue,” the CDLE official said.
There are still more than 23,000 people who haven’t appealed. I’m not as concerned about readers like Dahlia Weinstein — who is stuck with an $18,000 bill. She took screenshots of everything, saved all her emails and even recorded her calls, and is putting all of that in her appeal. Her insight, which she shared two weeks ago, is helping other Coloradans figure their way through this process.
It’s people like Gary O. who worry me.
He asked, “How do I appeal?”
Gary, who said he just learned he must pay back $18,000 in benefits, had ignored all of CDLE’s messages, including the “PUA — 90-day — Claimant Questionnaire” (read Erin Joy Swank’s tips on dealing with that message). He said they wouldn’t open. I told him to check whether he’s blocking pop-ups.
But the entire process was confusing so I worry about those who need more hand-holding. If you need in-person help, please check with your local state Workforce Center. There are nearly 50 statewide. They are funded with federal money to help connect workers to local employers. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve been supporting CDLE in helping residents figure out the often-confusing unemployment process. >> FIND YOUR WFC
But to answer Gary’s question, the appeals information should be on the message informing him of the overpayment. For those who still can’t find it, appeals can be mailed to:
Unemployment Appeals Section
PO Box 8988
Denver, CO 80201-8988
Or fax it to 303-318-9248. Do not do both, says CDLE, which has the same information online.
If anyone has gone through the overpayment appeals process, email me and share your story with Colorado.
We’ve got a larger staff now at The Colorado Sun, thanks to our growing reader support (that’s how we roll here to keep the Sun sustainable — visit coloradosun.com/join to support what we’re doing). We also cover the whole state and try to dig deeper into what’s happening in Colorado. If you have story suggestions, here’s your chance. Email me and I’ll make sure they get forwarded to the appropriate reporter. Hang in there everyone! ~tamara
What’s Working is a Colorado Sun column for readers navigating pandemic employment. Read the archive and don’t miss the next one. Get this free newsletter delivered to your inbox by signing up at coloradosun.com/getww.
- What’s Working: Colorado’s labor force is missing older adults, parents of young kids and international workers
- Where have Colorado’s workers gone? Some say: “We’re still here. Hire us!”
- What’s Working: Need a job? Tech companies are hiring in Colorado as a pre-pandemic labor crunch continues
- What’s Working: 24,000 unemployed Coloradans must pay back pandemic jobless benefits
- What’s Working: As Colorado’s labor shortage blame game continues, most unemployed workers are actually back at work
- What’s Working: How much federal COVID relief went to unemployed Coloradans?
- What’s Working: There are more job openings than Coloradans on unemployment. Matchmaking isn’t easy.
- What’s Working: It’s a worker’s labor market in Colorado as wages rise
- What’s Working: People say they want to work from home, but they’re returning to the office in droves