Why It's So Hard to Make a Living in Denver Despite Strong Economy
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Why It's So Hard to Make a Living in Denver Despite Strong Economy

A new survey lists Denver among the top ten U.S. cities for job seekers owing to the area's strong economy, low unemployment rate and plenitude of high-tech industries. But the man behind one of the city's most popular job sites feels that these factors mask the difficulties many people in Denver are having when it comes to making a comfortable living.

"Denver has become a really, really terrific place to move and to work," says Andrew Hudson, the namesake creator of Andrew Hudson's Jobs List. "But it's been widely reported that the cost of living here is extremely high, and salaries aren't matching what's being paid in other parts of the country."

Hudson has collected a slew of comments about this scenario from website users; find them at the bottom of this post. But here's an example: "If in my fourteen years in Denver my salary increases had matched the cost of living increase, I wouldn't have any ardent complaints, as I would have at least stayed even. The reality is that since my raises haven't matched the increased cost of living — in particular housing — I actually am making less money than fourteen years ago."

A former spokesman for Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Hudson started the job list as a hobby in 1999 and made it his full-time gig in 2008. As implied by one of the site's slogans, "Great Jobs Harvested Locally in Colorado," he has never sought to include every position available in the metro area, and he regularly highlights the newest, freshest and best positions available. But the site, which posts an average of 700 availabilities each month, still covers a lot of ground.

"It's a pretty broad range from a variety of career categories and fields and different agencies," he points out. "There are nonprofit jobs, health-care jobs and education jobs, and within all those big umbrellas, we list everything from administrative-assistant positions to CEOs and executive directors. They're mainly white-collar positions, and typically salaried positions. But we're getting a lot more part-time positions and contract positions, which tells me employers are trying to keep a threshold of when they need to pay health-care benefits and things of that sort."

According to internal surveys he's conducted over the past five years, more than 70 percent of visitors to Andrew Hudson's Job List are currently employed, meaning that they're looking for better opportunities. This phenomenon echoes job-sector behavior that Hudson has been observing over the past decade or so.

"I think the last recession had a big impact from the employer and employee standpoints," he says. "We're seeing that a lot of employees are jumping from one job to another more frequently. The tenure of people at one job used to be eight to ten years. Now it's two to three years. That kind of job-hopping used to be a negative thing, but I think employers are settling into the idea that it's okay or just the reality. Put it from a recent college graduate's perspective: If they're not moving up quickly enough or their salary isn't increasing enough in a short period of time, they're going to look for a position that will help them pay their bills."

There are no shortage of apartment-construction projects in Denver right now, but housing costs are still pricey.
There are no shortage of apartment-construction projects in Denver right now, but housing costs are still pricey.
Photo by Nate Hemmert

As this last comment implies, Hudson sees the near-constant search for a better job as being, in many cases, "a necessity. Rent has increased, health-care costs have increased. You have people saying, 'I want to start saving money for a home. I need money for transportation, I need money to eat, I need affordable housing,' which is a big thing for the mayor right now. [Mayor Michael Hancock's administration] is doing its best, and you see cranes everywhere building apartments, especially downtown. But affordable family housing is something that's become even more difficult to find."

The pay levels being offered by many employers are exacerbating these problems, Hudson believes.

"Entry-level jobs, in terms of starting salaries, are coming in between $32,000 to $40,000," he says. "Those are about the same numbers I would see when I graduated in 1989. And mid-level jobs for people with five to ten years' experience typically have starting salaries from $40,000 to $55,000. I'm hearing from people who have MBAs who are starting at that level."

Take these numbers "into the context of rising college costs, student loan payments, the price of housing, the price of cell phones, the price of the Internet," Hudson continues. "Then throw in the additional health-care costs people are having to swallow, and you can see that it's becoming a really big challenge for people to save for retirement, save to buy a house, to think about marriage and kids and all the cliché American Dream kinds of things."

As a result, Hudson is hearing about "more and more people who are having to take extra jobs, whether that means hourly jobs after their regular jobs or supplementing their income by driving for Uber or Lyft. People are living month-to-month on their paychecks, parents are opening up their house to their kids, or kids to their families, or they're renting out rooms on Airbnb to take in more money."

Not everyone's in this situation, Hudson acknowledges. "I think people who are feeling relatively at ease have owned their houses for a while. But the costs of living in Colorado can be pretty outlandish. I hear from people with three and four roommates out of college, people with three jobs, people saying they've gotten to a level of their career where, if they get laid off, they're not going to be able to find a job with that level of pay or the level of experience that's required."

Mid-level professionals are often surprised to find themselves facing such circumstances, as Hudson knows from the regular job-seekers boot-camp sessions he facilitates. "When you're in your twenties, you're kind of in your paying-your-dues decade," Hudson says. "You're getting professional opportunities, you're getting the chance to prove yourself. By your thirties, you figure you'll be able to start thinking about longer-term financial goals: buying a home, getting married, having kids, taking vacations. But I think it would be very hard to find people in general who are at that level in their thirties at this point. That was one of the themes in the presidential campaign across the country, in terms of people wanting not only to survive, but to gain some stability as it relates to jobs and salaries and the cost-of-living issues we're seeing."

In some ways, the state of affairs in Denver is paradoxical. As Hudson notes, "unemployment is low, and that typically says it's a job-seeker's market right now. But that's the irony. Denver is growing so much and people are coming here in droves, and unemployment is so low. I'm seeing it on my website. There's a lot of work out there, and the quality of life in Denver is great because of the outdoors and because it's hip. We've got all these great things going on. But is your quality of life impacted because you have to drive for Uber at night and on the weekends or having to move back to your parents' basement?"

An image from the home page of Andrew Hudson's Jobs List.
An image from the home page of Andrew Hudson's Jobs List.

Here are the aforementioned comments from Denver-area job seekers as collected by Hudson:

"There is no such thing as saving for millennials. It is survival mode. We have to find other ways to educate ourselves outside of college that won't break the bank, and we have to find alternative ways to earn money."

"If I went back into communications, I would easily take a 15 percent cut over what I was paid in my director-level job in 2012 when I left, and I would wear more hats. The house next door to us sold for $200k more than what we paid for ours six years ago. We couldn't qualify for a loan for our own house now, and the average rent on a house that would work for our family is $900/month more than our current mortgage. I'm so grateful that we bought when we did and that my business is working well, so I don't have any need to be in the job market."

"As a self employed musician, I've had to learn to live on a lot less than what most people would call a living, or a living wage. I've done it by always living within my means, though that was sometimes depressing, and when I had a windfall of any kind, I tried to save it and hoped it wouldn't get sucked away by some emergency. That said, I've made one or two wise choices, so my home is paid for, and that in itself is probably the biggest part of how I survive in today's economy."

"I now have three jobs and am going to start renting our spare room through Airbnb to make it work. Cost of living in Fort Collins is comparable to Denver. What happened to quality of life?"

"Being self-employed, I expect to never retire. I will work until the day I die. It's all I can do to afford living in the area. I moved to Lakewood because my old neighborhood in Denver just became far out of my price range."

"I consider myself retired now, but I remember being irritated that employers were willing to pay more for recent college graduates than someone like me who had considerable experience. I also noticed that pay for freelance writers didn't ever increase. I got about $1 a word from national magazines in the 1980s. It never went up after that. In fact, it went down considerably after most written content switched to the Internet and so many people were willing to write for free."

"We were just having this conversation with my son, a recent college grad. He has what should be a well-paying job ($40Kish, right out of school). He pays $800 a month for a tiny room in a house near Sloan Lake. He shares the home with two roommates — but he has a dog, so having access to a yard is a priority. He buys a bus pass to get downtown to his job; he had a merit scholarship at DU, but still has $300 a month in loan payments. He has decent benefits and badly needs fillings — but even only paying his copay, he has to budget to get dental care and is budgeting for a filling every 2-3 months. Net-net: He's counting his pennies; he has a serious girlfriend and would probably consider getting engaged, but there is no way he is financially able. I don't know how anyone could survive in Denver right now with kids or other responsibilities."

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