Employers in New Mexico contend there’s a lack of qualified candidates for jobs they need to fill – from construction workers to retail sales clerks – even as the ranks of unemployed in the state are the highest in the nation.
A new study by the state Department of Workforce Solutions shows that 74 percent of employers surveyed who had at least one job opening reported that they were having trouble filling it.
But the New Mexico Job Vacancy Survey, the first of its kind, also found this: Employers in the state generally require more education and a lot more experience than is typically required for similar positions nationwide.
And that finding likely contributes to the current woes in the state’s labor market, although it is unclear how much of a factor it is because of the limited survey sample, according to the study by state economist Ashley Leach.
Among the more than 50,000 employers in New Mexico, 4,665 responded to the survey.
But the report on New Mexico’s job market clearly reflects a nationwide trend of employers reporting worker shortages in large enough numbers that economists say the issue is limiting the pace of the U.S. economy’s growth.
The problem is especially perplexing in a state like New Mexico, where the unemployment rate is stuck at 6.7 percent and the employment rate for those of prime working age has had the biggest drop in the nation since 2007.
Looking out of state
Jeff Webster, an owner of Desert Utility & Paving of Albuquerque, was so desperate to find at least 40 construction workers that in April, he offered to pay $750,000 in bonuses if employees met certain goals.
Webster offered starting wages of about $20 an hour, as well as on-the-job training.
He’s still looking – out of state.
“You would think construction is an easy industry to attract field personnel, but it is not,” said Webster, who is also president of the New Mexico Utility Contractors Association.
Manager positions, such as superintendents and program managers, pose hiring problems for Ryan Centerwall, CEO of Affordable Solar.
Kelly Roepke-Orth, chief operations officer of the Associated General Contractors of New Mexico, says that might be due to the aging of baby boomers.
“As the ‘baby-boomer’ generation of workers reach retirement, firms are already struggling to find their replacements and it’s not just craft positions, but superintendents and estimators, to name a few,” she said in an email.
Also, workers are moving to other cities in the region that are booming, she said.
“… losing workers to other stronger markets like Denver, Phoenix, Texas, Salt Lake City continues (to) create a barrier,” she said.
A construction employee working on a private sector job in New Mexico makes an average weekly wage of $860 – 4 percent more than a year ago, according to federal figures for the third quarter of 2016, the most recent available. That same person working in Colorado earned $1,127 a week, or 7.2 percent more than last year. For local public construction jobs, the pay was $809 in New Mexico vs. $1,002 in Colorado.
Webster said another factor for him was the election of President Donald Trump. He said he’s seen a 50 percent drop in applicants since the new president’s crackdown on illegal immigration, with even legal immigrants worried about their status.
He also pointed to an emphasis on careers that require a college education rather than technical skills.
“Part of what I see in construction is not many moms and dads saying, ‘Go be a ditch-digger,'” Webster said. “They don’t realize there’s a substantial amount of money involved.”
Brian Condit, president of the New Mexico Building and Construction Trades Council, said the hiring problems are playing out amidst a “recent uptick in work,” following at least six years in which the industry was “horribly flat” in New Mexico.
Now, “the labor market is tightening,” Condit said. “We’re all looking for qualified craft workers.”
The base union scale for a journeyman electrician, for example, is $30 an hour, he said. That’s someone who has completed an extensive apprenticeship program with combined classroom instruction and on-the-job training.
Those skilled workers are going to the jobs that pay well.
“Workers are voting with their feet,” Condit said, “It’s a challenge for contractors paying substantially less than our scales are. They are probably feeling the pinch more than anyone else.
Down to the basics
Having problems filling job openings in New Mexico is a common theme among all kinds of occupations, the Job Vacancy Survey shows.
Among those described as difficult to fill were tractor-trailer truck drivers, installation and maintenance workers, registered nurses, restaurant cooks and retail sales clerks, among others, according to the survey.
For most employers, it comes down to the basics.
Those surveyed gave “lack of applicants” as the reason for 66 percent of the jobs described as hard to fill. “Lack of experience” was cited for nearly 41 percent of jobs.
Jobs that require at least some post-secondary education are harder to fill than those requiring a high-school degree or less, the survey showed.
But the amount of education, and especially experience, required by New Mexico employers go beyond the typical, minimum requirements nationwide, the survey said.
• 82 percent of the openings that required more than five years of experience demanded more than what’s typical. The figure was even higher – 89 percent – for jobs requiring somewhere below five years of experience.
• 40 percent of open positions requiring some sort of post-secondary or vocational training exceeded typical requirements, and the same figure held true for the percentage of jobs requiring some college experience.
A possible reason is that employers frustrated by a lack of soft skills – such as reading and writing abilities or problem-solving – ratchet up education or experience levels to try to compensate, the study said.
Another theory is that employers who are not finding solid candidates for any number of reasons are raising the bar in hopes of getting a better pool.
Regardless, a gap between what employers want and what workers offer is “just the tip of the iceberg of a much broader and more intricate set of factors,” according to a job study in Minnesota, which has been doing vacancy surveys for years.
The problems emphasize the need for “targeted interventions” in schools so students get early exposure to careers in skilled trades and other jobs the market offers, the study said.
They also underline the need for boot camps, Central New Mexico Community College training programs that are tied to the job market and other technical training efforts, said Charles Lehman, director of the Employment and Economic Information Center of New Mexico, an economic consulting company.
“Both the education community and the business community … really do need to work together for us to have a good labor force,” said Suzan Reagan, a senior program manager with the Bureau of Business and Economic Resarch at the University of New Mexico.