Jeff Pigati, a research geologist working at the U.S. Geological Survey in Lakewood, ran seeds from a site where human footprints were found alongside tracks of mammoths and saber tooth tigers at White Sands National Park in New Mexico through lab equipment to collect pure carbon samples.
He expected the results would carbon date back at most 13,000 years when humans are believed to have first crossed over from Asia into North America. Instead, he was surprised when the carbon in the samples ranged between 21,000 and 23,000 years old. People were walking around what was then an Ice Age lake far earlier than anthropologists had proposed.
“You never know what you are going to find,” said Pigati, describing what he enjoys most about his job at the USGS.
Pigati is a geoscientist, one of about 230 employed in the state last year, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While far from the largest occupation in the area, geoscientists are found in metro Denver at 6.1 times the rate seen nationally, making it the most concentrated job category according to the “location quotient.”
“The location quotient can tell you some interesting things about the population and what kind of work people are engaging in,” said Julie Percival, a regional economist with the Dallas office of the BLS.
That location quotient, average hourly and annual wages and headcounts are found in the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics survey, which is compiled twice a year by the BLS and state labor departments.
The USGS is increasingly using drones with specialized and sophisticated cameras to better track what is happening on the Earth’s surface and what is located below ground. Some of those drone operators are photogrammetrists, who along with cartographers constitute the second most concentrated occupation in metro Denver at 5.45 times the U.S. rate. And some, like Todd Burton, are geographers, who are prevalent at 4.58 times the U.S. concentration.
For those who think geographers spend their time leafing through dusty maps, think again. Burton and his colleagues, like Joe Adams, guide drones across raging rivers that are flooding, above erupting volcanoes to track lava flows and across the vast Alaskan permafrost to measure methane emissions as temperatures warm.
Metro Denver has rich streaks of relatively rare occupations like geoscientists, cartographers, hydrologists and petroleum engineers. They blend in with above-average concentrations of occupations common in many large metro areas — computer scientists, real estate brokers and airline pilots.
Manufacturing occupations are mostly underrepresented outside of beverages and some tech and electronic equipment makers. And there are unexpected concentrations of jobs, like a lot of landscape architects and of all things, acupuncturists. The mix of roughly 830 occupations represents a spectrum unique to metro Denver’s economy, one that makes it distinct from any other metro.
“It can be difficult at times to see the forest from the trees,” said Ryan Gedney, a senior labor economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment who cut his teeth on the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics survey. If you are an employer wanting to know what the going wage is for an open job, a worker wanting to make sure the pay offered is at the market rate, or somebody curious about what makes a local economy tick, the survey offers a deep and detailed place to dive in.
Metro Denver’s overconcentration in earth sciences probably got its start when miners found gold in Cherry Creek. Denver became a hub for the mining industry globally and hosts the regional hubs and headquarters of oil and gas producers tapping petroleum-rich reserves in the region It helps to have the Colorado School of Mines spinning out engineers and scientists. And Denver early on became a hub for federal scientists trying to map the vast rural areas of the Rocky Mountain region.
“We have more USGS employees in Colorado than in any other state,” said Peter Griffiths, regional director of the agency’s Rocky Mountain Region. Colorado is home to about 1,000 USGS workers, many of them highly specialized in their fields.
More generally, metro Denver is overrepresented in many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM fields. Electronics engineers are present at 3.8 times the national rate, computer network architects at 3.27 times, and computer and mathematical occupations at 1.6 times.
“Our industry clusters are so specialized and very technical — information technology, digital communications, aerospace. Denver is a freight train of 21st-century careers that are high paying,” said Andrew Hudson, who runs a popular job list that helps connect job hunters with opportunities.
Denver International Airport and the three major carriers serving it — United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines — also provide the metro area with a higher concentration of aviation workers. Aircraft service workers are present in metro Denver at 5.2 times the national rate, airline pilots at 4.6 times and flight attendants at 3.99 times the expected concentration.
Metro Denver has a hot housing market, with 4 times as many real estate brokers and 2.3 times as many real estate sales agents employed here than the concentration nationally. But employed is the operative word, Gedney said. A lot of agents and brokers are not on a payroll and not captured in the BLS survey. Metro Denver may just have more real estate salespeople earning a paycheck.
Metro Denver has a higher share of workers in business and financial operations overall, 9% vs. 6.4% nationally. Yet it has a smaller share of workers in management, 5.3% vs. 6.3% nationally. Does that mean workers here need less supervision or that businesses prefer to run leaner?
Even though the city isn’t as much of a hub for corporate headquarters as places like Minneapolis or Dallas, probably not. Gedney said CDLE workers take a harder line when it comes to classifying who is a manager, weeding out situations where someone might have a big title but little pay. And they are very strict when it comes to labeling someone a CEO. Metro Denver has only an eighth of the concentration of chief executives seen nationally.
Health care and high pay
For those trying to decide on a career field, the highest pay is available in more advanced health care professions for those able to cover the higher costs of entry in time, effort and money. Of the 10 highest-paid occupations last year in metro Denver, nine were in health care. Orthopedic surgeons topped the pay scale with an average annual salary of $317,850. Surgeons not covered in other categories pulled down $280,950 a year, while ophthalmologists made on average $273,050 a year.
CEOs came in as the sixth highest paid at $249,780 a year, but many, at least those heading public companies, make the bulk of their compensation in stock options and grants, which aren’t counted as wages. Professional athletes earned on average $186,990 a year, ranking 11th overall.
Percival said if an occupation has too few workers its detailed information is masked. Wages in metro Denver were not disclosed for anesthesiologists, cardiologists, gynecologists and radiologists, occupations that likely would have joined the highest-paid list.
And as with real estate agents, it is worth distinguishing income from wages. Dentists drawing a paycheck made on average $125,590 last year in metro Denver. But if that dentist owned his or her own practice, and was somewhat successful, chances are good the business income would have been much higher than what BLS is capturing in wages.
While health care occupations command the highest wages in Colorado, many categories such as registered nurses are actually underrepresented as a share of the workforce compared to the rest of the country. That might be because a relatively younger population consistently ranks high on surveys of health and fitness. But Gedney, doing a quick check on a few of the least healthy states, found they also had lower concentrations of health care occupations.
While traditional practitioners of medicine are underrepresented, alternative providers are overrepresented. The concentration of acupuncturists is 3.8 times higher than found nationally, massage therapists are at 2.9 times and chiropractors at 1.2 times.
Percival said the wage information can help employers determine if they are paying a competitive wage and workers can get a more honed sense of what the market might be willing to pay them. The OEWS breaks out wages into five bands. So someone with 20 years of experience can zero in on the top two tiers and see if that is where they are at.
Of the 22 major occupational groups, 18 pay significantly more than the national average, a reflection of higher living costs. Sales workers command the biggest premium, at 24%, receiving an average hourly rate of $27.51 versus $22.15 nationally. Managers receive an 18% premium, while transportation workers received 16% more pay per hour than the wage they receive nationally.
By contrast, health care practitioners; attorneys and legal workers; arts, entertainment, sports and media workers make close to the same median hourly wage as those in those occupational categories nationally.
Construction offers an interesting divergence to pay premiums Construction and extraction jobs account for 5% of the total workforce in metro Denver, above the 4.2% share seen nationally. But the average hourly wage of $27.03 isn’t high enough above the U.S. average wage of $26.87 to be statically significant, Percival said.
Gedney breaks it down further. Extraction workers in Colorado, mostly involved in oil and gas production, are paid a wage that is above the national average, in some cases 20% or more higher. But several categories of construction workers pay wages near or below the national median. Carpenters only make 0.5% more than the U.S. median, while electricians make 1.1% less, Gedney said.
Because the survey is based on early 2021 numbers, it doesn’t capture the bigger pay hikes employers are passing down to keep pace with inflation, which has topped 8% in recent months, or the big pay increases some service industry employers are offering just to get someone, anyone to show up.
Changemakers at casinos had the lowest annual wages at $29,550 a year, followed by fast food cooks at $29,850. Attendants at recreation and amusement attractions made an average of $30,260, while ushers, lobby attendants and ticket takers averaged pay of $30,280.
Fast food and counter workers made a little more than cooks at $30,490, while food prep workers and servers at restaurants pulled down $30,510 on average a year. Although the state asks for employers to include tipped wages, Gedney said not all of them do. That means restaurant and bar worker pay is likely understated.
Hudson said he has seen a lot more jobs in metro Denver paying $100,000 and up to workers with midlevel experience. He is also seeing more cases where starting wages are between $60,000 to $70,000 a year. He expects that jobs on the lower end of the pay scale will have a harder and harder time finding takers.
“The bottom line is that the cost of living in Denver has gotten to be so expensive,” he said. “It is becoming more and more difficult to find employees willing to accept low wages.”