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Economic rebound slow in Colorado

By Sandy Shore
The Associated Press

DENVER — As Brian Maitlen watched his laid-off co-workers struggle to find jobs, he desperately sent out resumes, networked with friends and consulted headhunters, girding himself for the day he, too, would be out of work.

Despite his advance work, Maitlen had nowhere to land when he lost his job as operations manager for ITT Industries in Loveland on April 1.

He and his family are cutting back their spending in anticipation of a long job hunt. Like the 85 others who lost their ITT jobs — and the thousands who have lost high-paying tech jobs in Colorado in the last few years — he faces an uncertain future.

“What I’m seeing for me is the job market is so flooded right now with so many qualified people,” he said.

While the national economy has shifted into high gear since the 2001 recession, Colorado has remained lethargic despite having one of the most educated work forces in the country. The number of non-farm jobs in the state was stuck at 2.11 million in January and February — the lowest level since May 1999.

Economists are forecasting a slight improvement this year, looking for gains in trade, tourism, services, manufacturing, mining and defense. Estimates of job growth range from 1.5 percent and 1.7 percent, meaning the state economy would add 32,000 to 37,000 jobs.

That is far from the robust growth that Colorado experienced during the booming 1990s.

“That was a bit of an atypical period,” state labor economist Joe Winter said. “A lot of things came together and the country was lucky, so to speak.”

Colorado’s economy has ridden a boom-bust roller coaster that, in decades past, was tied to natural resources. When the oil bust hit in the 1980s, thousands of jobs were eliminated as energy companies pulled out, causing a snowball effect that battered the economy.

The region rebounded into one of the fastest growth areas of the country by building an economic base of tourism, services, manufacturing, construction and technology.

From January 1990 to December 2000, the number of non-farm jobs grew from 1.5 million to 2.3 million, while the population jumped 31 percent to 4.3 million — a growth rate nearly triple that of the nation.

A number of factors combined to bring down Colorado’s economy, beginning in the fall of 2001 — the national recession, the dot-com bubble burst, the Sept. 11 attacks and a summer of drought and wildfires.

“Those particular sets of shocks to the economic system were almost targeting Colorado industries,” Winter said.

From January 2001 to February 2004, the number of jobs declined from 2.2 million to 2.1 million, with the biggest drops in the information sector, including telecommunications; manufacturing, including computer products; and construction.

The booming economy of the ’90s fueled Colorado’s population growth, with net migration from other states and overseas hitting a peak of nearly 80,000 people in 1999, according to state demographers. By 2003, that had dwindled to just 14,500 people.

Unemployed workers tell stories of competing against dozens, if not hundreds, for a single job. Some have returned to college to train for a new career while others have started their own businesses.

With 20 years of experience, including five at ITT Industries, Maitlen is hoping to remain in Colorado but realizes he may have to find work in another field. Of the 85 employees laid off at his company, only three or four have found work, he said.

Maitlen, his wife, Becky, and their four children, who live in Erie, have been making hard decisions about where to cut back — movies, dining out, possibly skipping a vacation trip.