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N.M. job picture still tough

James Bishop, right, of Albuquerque waits to talk to company reps at the Gobs of Jobs hiring event last week. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

James Bishop, right, of Albuquerque waits to talk to company reps at the Gobs of Jobs hiring event last week. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Chris Moses has experience in construction, landscaping, customer service and in an office setting.

What the 22-year-old Albuquerque man, along with thousands like him, does not have is a job. He has been out of work since he quit his courier job about a year ago.

And finding a new job has proved much harder than he anticipated.

“I figured I’d have another job in a week and I would be fine, but I’ve put in 60 applications in the year I’ve been unemployed and haven’t had a single call back,” he said.

Moses was among the job-seekers who sought face time with about 30 area employers during the Gobs of Jobs Fair last week at the Albuquerque Marriott Pyramid hotel.

As he roamed the Marriott’s ballroom in his standard job-fair uniform — dark suit and royal-blue tie — he summed up the Albuquerque job market in one word: rough.

“At this point, I’m looking for anything really,” he said.

Local companies with openings have been inundated with applicants in recent months. The Downs Racetrack & Casino had 400 positions to fill when it hosted its two-day job fair last week. Approximately 6,400 people showed up.

The scenario is not unusual — in New Mexico and across the country.

Recent headlines point to an improving job picture — the national unemployment rate in April was 7.5 percent, 2 full percentage points below where it stood at the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. The Obama administration touts the creation of 6.8 million jobs in the past 38 months. The stock market has roared back from recession depths.

But the improving headlines mask a scarred labor market.

One out of five American families reported last year that not a single family member had a job. About 102 million Americans are completely out of the work force. And by a number of measures, participation in the labor market remains at or near modern lows.

“Most of the improvement that we’ve seen in the unemployment rate hasn’t been due to increased job opportunities. It’s been due to people dropping out of, or never entering, the labor market because of weak opportunities,” said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist for the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.

Jammed job fairs

A similar scene played out during a Target hiring event earlier this year. A store official said an estimated 6,500 to 7,000 people came looking for work at the new Uptown location.

Economic numbers can be deceiving

Target corporate spokeswoman Anne Christensen would not say exactly how the turnout compared to other company job fairs around the country but said the Albuquerque response was so great they had to add two extra interview days.

“This was actually one of our most successful job fairs,” Christensen said.

Bob Smith said he has attended six or seven local job fairs, including the Gobs event, in the last two months. Smith, 65, was laid off from his job selling construction supplies to commercial contractors.

“This is the first time in my life, in 49 years, I’ve been without a job,” he said. “You read about it, you hear about it, you think about it, and, then, when it happens, it’s a real awakening.”

Smith is looking for something in a related field, he said, and preferably something above entry level. As he sat among other candidates at Gobs of Jobs — many of them furiously scribbling on job-application forms — he said he can afford to be a little picky. He’s collecting unemployment and isn’t far from receiving full Social Security benefits. But being on the job fair circuit has opened his eyes to a harsh reality.

“I never realized how many other people are out there and are unemployed and don’t have anything coming in,” he said.

‘Hard times for a lot of people’

That candidates are swarming local job events doesn’t surprise Lee Reynis, director of the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“Obviously, we have a situation in which the economy has been depressed for a while,” she said. “Although things are better, they’re not good, and we’re certainly lagging way behind the rest of the country and most of the state, certainly the surrounding states.

“I think it’s been hard times for a lot of people,” she said.

The unemployment rate for the Albuquerque metropolitan statistical area — Bernalillo, Sandoval, Torrance and Valencia counties — stood at 6.4 percent in April, according to the state’s most recent labor market data not seasonally adjusted. That’s just under the New Mexico average of 6.7 percent.

About 22,000 individuals are certifying for unemployment benefits statewide every week, according to Workforce Solutions. The department does not keep track of the thousands of residents who have given up looking for work.

The metro area added 2,200 jobs in March — the latest available — but was still down 1,000 jobs from March of 2012, according to seasonally adjusted data.

Reynis attributes the city’s “lagging” turnaround in part to a reliance on government employment, especially in a time of federal spending cutbacks. Albuquerque’s metro area had 700 fewer federal government jobs in March 2013 than in March 2012.

The city has also suffered from the continued loss of construction jobs, Reynis said. Though those losses have at least slowed and building permits are increasing, preliminary numbers still show the city had 300 fewer construction jobs this past March than in March 2012.

No other sector has shown large enough growth to offset those losses, she said.

“The basic problem is we haven’t had a sector that’s been really strong enough to pull us out,” she said.

‘Cream of the crop’

Interestingly, the majority of those seeking work at the Downs Racetrack & Casino were already employed. Chief Operating Officer Scott Eldredge told the Journal that roughly two-thirds had existing jobs. They were vying for positions throughout the casino, from slot tech to bartender to security officer. Most positions paid a starting wage between $8.50 and $12, Eldredge said, though candidates with extensive experience could make more. Roughly half of the 6,400 applicants had previous casino experience. Among those candidates, the new casino’s central Albuquerque location at the Expo New Mexico Fairgrounds was a huge selling point. The lure of working in the gaming industry helped attract others, he said.

Some applicants appeared over-qualified on paper but expressed a willingness “to take a step down to get a foot in the door,” Eldredge said.

“That’s great for our business,” he said. “We can pick the cream of the crop. Maybe we’re hiring 400, but, out of 6,400, we’ll hire Albuquerque’s best.”

Customer-care call center company Sitel recently announced plans to fill 350 full- and part-time positions at its Albuquerque site. Sitel received 310 applications over a week’s period earlier this month, including 141 during an on-site job fair.

Matt Doyle, Sitel’s senior human resources manager, said that was “about what was expected,” considering the center typically gets 100 applications weekly.

More than 350 job seekers attended last week’s New Mexico Veterans Business Expo and Job Fair at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

That includes Smith, who said the event gave him a few job leads and even an interview.

“If I get an offer in a field I know,” he said, “I’ll jump on it.”

Kevin G. Hall of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.


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