DENVER – For tech worker Kinsey Durham, the lure was a sense of energy and a wealth of career opportunities.
For city planner Andrew Webb, it was a chance to be in a booming urban environment that offered interesting work and a dynamic place to raise a family.
For accountant Kevin Taylor, it was all of the above and then some.
The road from Albuquerque to Denver has become well-traveled for people in all kinds of professions as Colorado’s economy has outpaced the nation’s and New Mexico’s has remained near the bottom.
The signs are everywhere, with construction cranes hovering over the Denver skyline, families packing the city’s numerous parks and restaurants remaining busy late into weekday evenings.
“There is a sense of vibrance and positivity,” Webb said. “It’s very exciting here right now.”
But there’s also this: long traffic jams on major roads that put Albuquerque’s commuter woes to shame and a median home cost that’s double Albuquerque’s.
Still, those who have made the move north say the hassles are worth it, and the better wages, benefits and room for career growth offset the higher costs.
“We didn’t want to leave Albuquerque; we loved it there,” Taylor said of him and his wife, Trish. “But there’s not enough jobs.”
“Albuquerque needs new businesses who are willing to pay young people out of college a decent wage. A lot of kids are hungry for a challenge and a potential to prove themselves. Even if you proved yourself in Albuquerque, there just wasn’t room to move up.”
That’s because limited opportunities mean senior managers hold on to their positions for years, creating a bottleneck for younger professionals looking for promotions, said Chris Sanchez, a job recruiter who specializes in accounting and finance hiring.
Also, those in the finance and accounting fields, for example, can find pay that’s “easily 30 to 35 percent” higher than they could make in Albuquerque, said Sanchez, a New Mexico native who is now based in Denver.
It’s no competition, he said. They move.
Jobs key to exodus
New Mexico’s population has remained stagnant in a way that is unprecedented in the state’s history.
Between 2010 and 2016, nearly 40,000 more people left the state than moved in. Taking into account the number of births and deaths, New Mexico’s growth was only 1 percent during that period. That followed consistent double-digit growth the state had seen in past decades.
At the same time, surrounding states have seen significant growth. Colorado’s population grew by 10 percent between 2010 and 2016.
A new analysis of state migration, broken down into five-year age groups, shows that New Mexico residents leaving in the largest numbers since 2010 are those who are 50 to 54 years old.
Another surprising finding: the 25- to 29-year-old group showed an influx into the state. That’s due “mostly to the fact that higher education and the military keep those folks coming in as well as out,” said Robert Rhatigan, associate director of the University of New Mexico Geospatial and Population Studies department, said in an email. Those figures, however, don’t reveal where people leaving the state are going.
Job figures tell the story about the move to Denver:
• New Mexico in June saw 19,300 new jobs, compared to the year before; Colorado added 54,900 new jobs during that time period.
• Unemployment in New Mexico has ranked as one of the highest in the nation, registering 6.4 percent in June. Colorado, meanwhile, has been shattering its own state records, with a 2.3 percent rate in June. Colorado and North Dakota have the lowest in the nation.
• The average pay for all occupations as of May 2016 was $22.08 in the Albuquerque area compared to $26.88 in the Denver metro area. Albuquerque’s was 7 percent below the national level, while Denver’s was 12.7 percent higher. Some New Mexico employers report having trouble finding qualified workers to fill the jobs they offer, due in part to the higher wages offered elsewhere but also due to a lack of candidates with the needed skills.
All of that adds up to a booming Denver economy that has the added lure of being close enough to Albuquerque so Duke City natives can easily visit family.
Proximity also means the transplanted New Mexicans can come home when they’re craving their favorite foods and need to escape from green chile that’s more like “meaty gravy” or red chile that’s more like barbecue sauce, they said.
“We could move to a booming place but still be close to family and friends,” Webb said. “The high quality of life means a lot of young people want to live in this place and that brings the companies that employ them.”