Last year was one of affirmation for Colorado Springs. After decades of living in the shadows of bustling and seemingly “cooler” northern Colorado cities such as Boulder, Fort Collins and Denver, General Palmer’s burg discovered in 2018 that the only shadow we should be living in is the one cast by America’s Mountain.
However, even as Colorado Springs found itself atop the list of most desirable places to live — for retirees, much-needed Millennials, and everyone in between — the city still lags behind its northern Colorado neighbors in one important and indisputable metric: wages.
Consider the numbers.
During the Peak Executive Forum’s regional business update late last year, Mayor John Suthers pointed with pride to the median, or middle, salary for posted jobs in the Colorado Springs MSA. In September 2018, that was $78,000. It was high-paying job openings — relatively few in number and not necessarily filled by local workers — that generated that PR-worthy data point.
But actual wages — money the rest of us working-class dogs get paid and pump back into the local economy — are on average $30,000 lower.
A search at Payscale.com shows an average annual salary in Colorado Springs of $47,571. The same site lists an average salary of $60,663 in the Denver area. Fort Collins? $50,042. Boulder? $62,583. It’s right here, with these figures, that our discussion needs to begin.
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis placed first quarter 2018 average weekly wages for employees of private establishments in the Colorado Springs MSA at $938 a week. That’s $48,776 a year. In Denver? It’s $1,253 a week, adding up to $65,156 a year.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data is from 2017, but provides a similar picture.
No matter the data source, no matter the year, Colorado Springs lags behind the state when it comes to paying its employees.
We know the area’s wage gap was exacerbated by technology jobs leaving the region during the 1990s and early 2000s. We know Colorado Springs is home to many tourism and hospitality jobs, which don’t pay exceptional wages. We also know the population is transient, thanks to the military, and some jobs are filled temporarily by military spouses leaving little room for them to advance.
Considering those factors, as the Pikes Peak region grows in popularity, Colorado Springs faces the same dilemma confronting our higher-paying neighbors: housing costs, health care and higher-ed costs and the prices of many goods and services are on the rise — and each is outpacing wage increases.
Even as Colorado Springs has been on numerous lists over the past few years that proclaim its greatness, lower local wages combined with the increasing cost of living have led to an imbalance that’s just getting worse.
And a truly great city can’t be built on imbalance.
Normally when the Business Journal points out a problem on its editorial page, it does so with some solutions in mind. But this week we’re using the space to ask questions. Like why do wages in Colorado Springs continue to significantly lag behind northern Colorado cities? Are local businesses less profitable than businesses in other communities? If so, why? Even though the city is highly educated, is our workforce unprepared for higher-paying jobs? Do those hiring believe the quality of life and surrounding amenities make up for lower wages? Are business owners simply paying less? Is that a sustainable strategy?
What we do know is Colorado Springs is experiencing a renaissance. Significant investments have been made to create a community that matches the majesty of its surroundings.
But if our city is truly going to meet its potential, we have questions to answer and changes to make.