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Postal workers at a U.S.Postal Service Fulfillment Center in Denver, CO, package and ship COVID-19 test kits to Colorado residents. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Since before the pandemic, a group of Denver business leaders have been working on a plan to get more of their employees above a $45,000 annual wage. There was a good reason for that: A livable wage and promotion potential could help retain workers in a tight labor market.

It was also an effort to address the overrepresentation of women and people of color in the lower wage group. So, a tool was developed to help them address diversity issues. Now that tool is being offered for free to all companies.

But first, let’s talk about new data out this week that shows Colorado had the nation’s third largest decline in job openings in February. The state ranked 33rd for its job openings rate, down from tying for 10th in December, according to the latest state Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.

Credit some of the decline to employers adding more workers to their payrolls — the state’s hiring rate ranked 11th nationwide in February. 

But there are still a plentiful number of job openings, especially in El Paso County, which has recovered 117% of the jobs lost since the early shutdowns of the pandemic (yes, there are now more workers in the Colorado Springs region than before the pandemic — see page 20 in this report from the state Department of Labor and Employment).

“I truly think there are more job openings than there are people to fill the jobs,” said Traci Marques, executive director of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, which serves El Paso and Teller counties.

Job openings for the Pikes Peak region were typically running at 13,000 on any given day. As of  April 21, it was 15,991, up from 13,751 on March 12 and 10,877 back on March 11, 2020. In other words, opportunities are actually increasing. 

Marques said the idea of the Great Resignation still exists, in that workers are leaving jobs for better options. But businesses are talking about it less and focusing on job quality, be it improving corporate culture, offering training opportunities or adding benefits such as wellness and health care. The increase in recent openings could be attributed to the hospitality industry as hotels and the travel industry ramp up for the summer season.

“It is what it is right now,” she said. “They (businesses) may not like it, but they’re starting to accept it and figure out creative ways to work around it.”  

Federal jobs data is based on small sample surveys. And in the case of the latest JOLTS report, it comes from a sample of 21,000 establishments.

Economists like Ryan Gedney, with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, have long warned not to use one month’s worth of data to identify a trend. It’s the several months of data that may point to something. 

In this case, the state is still experiencing high levels of job openings, hirings and job quitters. The rate of layoffs, however, is similar to what it was like before COVID disrupted the economy in early 2020. Here’s one more chart that shows how much or little data changed:

The state’s official job board also has more jobs than ever. On Friday, had 121,436 open jobs. About a year ago, it had 70,602 jobs posted. (Everyone on state unemployment must register with the site.)

The company that vets many of those jobs, Indianapolis-based DirectEmployers Association, didn’t respond to questions about what the conflicting trends mean. 

But Kurt Moe, who’s been hunting for a job since I interviewed him last year, offered his thoughts.

“I gave up on ConnectingColorado after my (unemployment) benefits ran out,” said Moe, a computer programmer in Longmont. “In 18 months, I think I got less than a handful of callbacks or emails from employers on that website. I have had better luck on Indeed, ZipRecruiter, and CyberCoders, but even there it is hard to get any traction. I am still applying for regular jobs, but also running some ads on Craigslist, which is where I have had the best luck at finding freelance work.”

Moe, who’s been scraping by and would prefer regular work, has an impressive resume as an experienced web and database full-stack developer. I’ve seen it. If you need his talent, email me and I’ll connect you.

➤ GET CERTIFIED — The Ready to Rise program provides job-certification opportunities to Coloradans who are still dealing with pandemic job loss, decreased earnings or inability to return to work because of childcare responsibilities. The Pikes Peak Workforce Center’s program offers funding, as does others. >> MORE INFO 

Why a group of Denver businesses are using diversity tools 

What’s Working readers may remember a column where a Denver business leader called $45,000 “a scrape-by wage.” That was Lorena Zimmer, project director of Prosper CO, which is part of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. She told me this week that after the story ran, she heard from companies that raised wages. 

Prosper chose $45,000 for a reason. 

About 40% of Denver workers earned less than $40,000 a year, based on 2018 data. But that low-wage group had an overrepresentation of women and people of color when compared to Metro Denver’s population (those making $63,000 or more were 81% white and 65% male). Adjusted for inflation, Prosper put the amounts at $45,000 and $68,000, which was the region’s average wage. 

Prosper CO researched worker demographics in Denver and found that women and people of color were overrepresented in the worker population that earned less than $45,000 a year. (Provided by Prosper CO)

“We took a look at a lot of economic data and we saw who was not benefiting (from the city’s economic growth) and a larger proportion were women and people of color,” Zimmer said. “So we pulled together a group of leaders, business leaders, nonprofit leaders to say, ‘Alright, what are the barriers to people across the economic continuum? What are strategies that we’re all willing to lean on and say, we’ll be part of that to move people across.’”

Prosper creates processes and policies to help companies move lower-paid workers into a higher-pay group. That makes sense in a labor shortage — elevate workers already at the company by training them, supporting them and promoting them. 

Now Prosper is rolling out a tool to help companies figure out a starting point for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies. Called Prosper Compass, this benchmarking tool starts by categorizing employees by gender and ethnicity and then by three wage brackets:

  1. Right now, or those earning less than $45,000
  2. Pathway, incomes between $45,000 to $68,000
  3. Opportunity, incomes above $68,000
The Prosper Compass benchmarking tool helps a company that is trying to figure out how to help workers in the sub-$45,000 wage category. By seeing where workers are based on wage, gender and race, Compass offers a starting point. (Provided by Prosper CO)

Plotted in a graph, a company quickly can see how its workforce compares to Denver’s working population. If an oversized portion of workers in the “Right now” group are similar to Denver’s gender and ethnic data, attention to DEI policies could improve the situation for both the worker and employer.

Pinnacol Assurance volunteered for the Compass pilot last year. The workers-comp insurer was already studying pay equity, establishing DEI policies and had hired Jamie Villarreal-Bassett as its first DEI director. But the Prosper Compass tool helped it see things more clearly, said Lisa Mason, Pinnacol’s associate vice president of human resources. 

“It was really encouraging. Where we had opportunities, we had already addressed them,” Mason said. “We really wanted to see a very low or lower number of our Right Nows and where they were.”

Inside the Lowry headquarters of Pinnacol Assurance, one of Colorado’s largest workers comp insurers. (Provided by Pinnacol Assurance)

As it turned out, Pinnacol’s 2021 workforce had just 1.9% of its workers in the sub-$45,000 “Right Now” group because of earlier moves to improve wage equity.

Jamie Villarreal-Bassett, Pinnacol Assurance, Diversity Equity and Inclusion (Provided by Pinnacol Assurance)

In that lower-wage group, though, the proportion of women outnumbered men so there was still room for improvement. As for race? “We saw the same trend across racial and ethnic demographics. It was very, very small,” Villarreal-Bassett said.

“Benchmarking is really important to organizations,” she added. “And yet you also want to make sure you’re benchmarking to your own data so it’s not like, ‘Oh look! We’re doing way better than that other company so we don’t need to progress.’”

Prosper Compass is now available to non-Chamber members. While it’s just one tool out there for companies who are discussing DEI, Villarreal-Bassett said that being part of Prosper has provided a community to share ideas and processes and create new partnerships. 

“It helps us not to be in an echo chamber of like, ‘Look at us. Gosh, we’re doing so great,’ but it gives us some critical friends in the work across Colorado,” she said. 

More information on Prosper Compass

Other working bits

➤ 1ST COLORADO STARBUCKS UNIONIZES: The Starbucks in Superior has become the first in Colorado to vote to unionize on Friday, confirmed the union. According to Rocky Mountain PBS, 15 of the 29 employees voted, with 12 in support, two opposed and one vote voided. At least five other stores in the state are working on unionizing, including the one at Republic Plaza on the 16th Street Mall in Denver. >> STORY

➤ MORE INFLATION? If last month’s inflation rate jump to 9.1% was largely blamed on higher gas prices, Colorado’s average is now above $4, according to this week’s gas report from AAA. March’s average was a few cents below $4. Per-gallon gas is still below $4 in the Front Range (except for Boulder/Longmont, now at $4.01) but prices continue to climb on the Western Slope. Durango had the highest average, at $4.46 for a gallon of regular gasoline. >> AAA

➤ 100 WORKERS NEEDED: United Ground Express is hosting a job fair and looking for a few great workers. These may not be dream jobs — want to drive the lavatory truck or clean up the cabin between flights? — but $19.87 and $18..37 an hour, respectively, that’s not a bad starting gig. And being connected to United Airlines, various perks include medical, 401k and free flights to anywhere if you don’t mind standby. Interviews and job offers will be done on the spot on April 27th from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Denver East, at 3333 Quebec St. >> DETAILS

➤ DRIVER’S APPRENTICESHIPS — The state Department of Transportation is looking for 10 people for a two-year training program that results in a Commercial Driver’s License. The training will involve maintenance, traffic and safety or tunnel operations. Deadline is May 2. >> APPLY

➤ LAST CALL FOR GRANTS — Colorado’s official apprenticeship program’s deadline to apply for a Scale Up grant is April 27 at 5 p.m. Grants between $10,000 to $50,000 are being offered to help companies and organizations build their own training programs. >> STORY, APPLY 

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Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...