Colorado Mesa University graduates leave Mesa County in search of career jobs |

Colorado Mesa University graduates leave Mesa County in search of career jobs

Amanda Conrads recently graduated from Colorado Mesa University with a business degree. She’s currently seeking full-time employment in Grand Junction while her husband Micah (pictured) finishes his degree.
Submitted photo |


Mesa County’s job force continues to shrink. Young people leave for healthier job markets, experienced workers retire and the long-term unemployed head for greener pastures.

According to Mesa County Workforce Center business services manager Suzanne Miller, despite the shrinking labor force it doesn’t mean jobs are easier to find. Plus, Grand Valley wages hang on at 77 percent of the national average, meaning skilled workers continue to move away.

For job seekers who do stay, competition is heavy.

“It makes it challenging for folks to find jobs with little or no experience because they’re competing with experienced workers,” Miller said.

She recommends everyone seeking employment prepare to market themselves effectively with updated resumes and continued interview practice.

Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Diane Schwenke recommends registering with the Mesa County Workforce Center and joining networking groups like the Young Professionals of Mesa County.

“Don’t get discouraged,” she added.

Job seekers should also look for local companies specializing in products and/or services sold outside the valley. Grand Junction Business Incubator Center executive director Jon Maraschin confirmed persistent lagging with local business-to-business companies in Mesa County, while engineering, technology-based and exporting businesses appear healthier.

“All our economic partners here are certainly trying to invest in our youth,” Miller said. “That’s our future work force. We want to retain quality workers and keep them here.”

— Caitlin Row, GJ Free Press community editor

When 22-year-old Kelsey Burns graduated from Grand Junction’s Colorado Mesa University on May 17, she joined thousands of young adults seeking gainful employment across Colorado. She’s one of 1,007 undergraduates who received diplomas from CMU this spring.

Burns immediately moved to her parents’ home in Arvada, hoping to secure a full-time job related to her mass communication degree. In the meantime, she landed a paid, six-month internship managing social media platforms for Denver’s Bridge Linguatec — an international organization specializing in language instruction and teacher training.

“It seems like a lot of people are having a hard time finding [jobs] in the Grand Valley,” Burns said. “There’s so much going on in a bigger city. I really thrive off of that.”

With almost 10,000 students earning degrees through CMU, the four-year college should be churning out high-caliber workers hungry to stay in one of Colorado’s larger cities. Instead many students simply expect to leave Grand Junction due to its still lagging job market.

According to Mesa County Workforce Center business services manager Suzanne Miller, this is a common occurrence seen throughout the valley, an area with wages hovering at just 77 percent of the national average. Though April’s unemployment rate was 6.9 percent locally, certainly the lowest it’s been this year, it’s still higher than Colorado as a whole (5.6 percent).

“I know 6.9 percent seems low, but it’s still a very challenging local economy right now and it’s very different from the rest of the state,” Miller explained. “There are parts of the state that are booming and we have not been able to recover.”


Like Burns, many new graduates leave Mesa County in search of jobs as student loan payments loom.

Stephanie Cochran, who also earned a mass communication degree in May, moved in with her mother in Denver.

“Right now I am shooting out a couple applications a day,” 22-year-old Cochran said. “I’m pretty open to anything [in media] at this point. I’m throwing a pretty wide net, not limiting myself at all.”

Though Cochran valued her time spent studying at CMU, she never viewed Mesa County as a viable post-grad market.

“A handful of people I know are staying, and they have their reasons,” she said. “But a large portion of people I know are trying to go elsewhere like the East Coast or California.”

Grand Junction resident Travis Roth, 23, is also looking further afield for his first job out of school. With a business degree focused in energy management, opportunities to stay on Colorado’s Western Slope are limited (though he’d like to stay).

“I’m looking for employment as a landman for oil and gas companies,” he said. “I’m thinking out of state may be the best option,” in areas such as North Dakota, Texas, Wyoming and Alaska.

Roth noted internships as the best way to secure a job straight of our college. He did two — a public policy internship with the National Corn Growers Association in Washington, D.C., and a land negotiator internship with Encana in Denver.


Amanda Conrads, 21, earned her business degree from CMU with a concentration in entrepreneurship. She, unlike many fellow graduates, plans to stay in Grand Junction indefinitely.

Originally from Cedaredge, Colo., Conrads moved to Grand Junction for school. While studying she met and married another CMU student, Micah Conrads, who will graduate in December.

Though Amanda Conrads is not yet employed, she said she’s actively interviewing. Micah Conrads also said he’d seek employment locally, either with the Grand Junction Police Department or Colorado State Patrol.

Graduating without student loans relieved some pressure to take “any job” right out of school, Amanda Conrads noted. Scholarships and a part-time campus job funded her degree.

Finding a job in Grand Junction isn’t impossible straight out of school, however, as 38-year-old Heather Portenier can attest. She secured employment with Grand Junction-based Rocky Mountain PBS right before graduation; she provides underwriting support, special event planning and script writing in a newly created position.

“I was worried about finding a job, but probably a little less concerned than my younger counterparts,” she said. “Experience backing me up, helped in the search.”

Having lived in Grand Junction for the last two decades, Portenier owned a cleaning business for 10 years before going back to school.

“I always wanted a college degree,” she said. “My son has special needs, and I wanted to show him that anything is possible no matter what happens in life.”

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