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NM struggles with ‘skills gap’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — From construction sites to the C-suite level of new startups, New Mexico is shouldering its share of a nationwide struggle facing the business world: how to find enough qualified workers.

Employers are battling: a changing workforce as baby boomers retire, a “skills gap” haunting a variety of occupations and a legion of people who simply failed to re-enter the workforce after the Great Recession.

The number of unfilled job openings nationwide last year topped about 6 million for five months in a row, a record streak, according to the Washington Post. With the U.S. unemployment rate at 4.1 percent, the lowest in 17 years, employers are competing for fewer workers.

The construction industry has been booming in Albuquerque, above, and elsewhere in the state, but companies say they have trouble finding enough skilled labor. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

In New Mexico, though, the unemployment rate (which measures those who are jobless and looking for work) remains stuck at the second-highest level in the nation. It was 6 percent in December, the most recent month available.

“So when you talk about a shortage of labor (in the state), it’s got to be in specific occupations,” said Jim Peach, New Mexico State University economist. “There are people out there willing and able to work, but there may be a mismatch of skills. We don’t have a general shortage of labor.”

One big factor, he said, is the state’s relatively low wages.

“If you need more workers, offer a higher wage and they’ll show up,” Peach said.

Dr. Joseph Bergsten checks a patient at Presbyterian’s clinic on Harper NE. The biggest workforce shortage facing New Mexico through at least 2020 is among doctors, nurses and other licensed health care providers. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The biggest workforce shortage facing New Mexico through at least 2020 is among doctors, nurses, dentists and other health-care providers, according to a study by AARP Research.

The problem is especially acute when it comes to the state’s rural areas, but in general, “regardless of any foreseeable change in health care or health care delivery, New Mexico will have substantial shortages in most health care professions,” said Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

Also not expected to change any time soon is the workforce gap in New Mexico’s construction industry. This booming part of the state’s economy has for months been unable to fill the demand for skilled workers.

“Our industry really has a huge challenge,” said Kelly Roepke-Orth, chief operations officer of the Associated General Contractors of New Mexico. “We saw a large portion of the labor force move to other industries or out of state altogether.”

Even the state’s youngest businesses are not immune.

Stuart Rose

Startup companies focusing on everything from scientific discoveries to technological applications sometimes struggle to find qualified administrators to fill their top ranks, said Stuart Rose, founder of The BioScience Center and FatPipe incubator, both in Albuquerque.

“What is missing here are people who are experienced entrepreneurs, who can become C-level executives in companies emerging (from a) startup base,” Rose said.

Here’s a look at some of the shortages expected to continue facing the state:

Health care

While rural areas across the nation are suffering from a lack of licensed providers, things are worse in New Mexico, Larson says.

“I don’t believe we have identified a profession or specialty where there is not a shortage,” he said. “The question is how severe is the shortage.”

For example, 30 of New Mexico’s 33 counties are below national workforce levels when it comes to registered nurses, while two-thirds of the state’s counties are short on primary-care doctors and physician assistants, according to a 2017 report by the New Mexico Health Care Workforce Committee.

When it comes to nurses, the state faces a “tsunami of potential retirees,” some of whom are in their 70s and looking at leaving the profession soon, said Deborah Walker, executive director of the New Mexico Nurses Association.

“We’re now at a tipping point where more people are retiring than we’re producing,” she said.

The state Legislature recently approved a multistate compact allowing nurses licensed elsewhere to practice in New Mexico, but Walker said that’s just one step toward ensuring an adequate workforce.

Jason Mitchell of Presbyterian Healthcare Services said the provider shortages are so persistent that relying solely on recruiting new bodies will not be enough. Mitchell, chief medical officer, said the key will be making fundamental changes in how health care is dispensed.

He pointed to certain primary-care visits that are now conducted over the phone or through “video visits.” Already, 8 percent of Presbyterian’s primary-care visits are now by phone, he said.

“We’re aging in place as a state – not growing overall and people are getting older,” Mitchell said. “So what we have today will not work tomorrow if we do it the same way.”

Startups need higher-ups

While New Mexico has made strides in providing capital and support for new companies, finding chief executive officers and vice presidents to oversee them can be difficult.

Lisa Kuuttila

That’s because New Mexico lacks “a big enough ecosystem,” Lisa Kuuttila, CEO of the University of New Mexico’s technology transfer office, said of the need for top administrators just below the CEO level.

With its relatively small population, the state is limited in people with the skill sets to be a startup CEO, Rose said.

Those skills include “the ability to raise money, set strategic direction and the ability to manage people,” Rose said. He added, though, that “even in New York or Boston, it’s not always possible to find every kind of person you’re looking for.”

Kuuttila said some companies that look for people outside of New Mexico find it hard to recruit because “we don’t have enough of a base to make it attractive to move here.” Someone qualified to fill a vice president-level job, for example, might be more tempted to go to a larger market where there are more opportunities if the startup fails, she said.

Said Rose, “They ask themselves, ‘What am I going to do if that company (is not) going to succeed?’ Where is the next job in New Mexico? We don’t have a good answer yet.”

That person may also wonder whether his or her spouse can also find a job in the state, he said.

For John Lahoff of Southwest Labs, the difficulty has been finding workers skilled for the “very niche, technical business.” The Albuquerque company, which has about 55 employees, features an advanced toxicology lab that specializes in clinical drug testing.

Lahoff, the company’s marketing director, said recent college graduates have limited opportunities locally and end up leaving New Mexico for more pay elsewhere.

He said his company has learned to be creative in finding people who have the core skills required but who need some extra training. “We have as talented people as anywhere; you just have to look at it differently,” he said. “You have to think outside the box.”

Rose and Kuuttila agree that New Mexico is making strides and becoming more attractive.

“Once we have a few companies that are successful, and the word gets out into the world outside of New Mexico that says something is going on (here), that’s when this will become much easier,” he said. “We’re getting closer but we’re not there.”

Construction

A workforce shortage in the building trades has been much in the news over the past year as the national economy has ramped up and skilled workers have become more scarce.

Roepke-Orth said New Mexico’s gap mirrors the one measured at the national level recently by the Associated General Contractors of America. The report, released on Jan. 3, found that 82 percent of companies surveyed expect it will remain difficult or become even harder this year to find enough workers.

Clinton Beall, senior vice president of B&D Industries Inc. in Albuquerque, said his company would like to add 30 to 50 employees to its 350-member workforce over the next year but faces the same squeeze as other contractors. The industry, he said, was hit by “a perfect storm” stemming from the economic downtown and subsequent lost labor force on top of a lack of experienced workers to train newcomers.

A bright spot, he said, is ongoing construction of the Facebook data center in Los Lunas, which is providing a wealth of jobs. The work is also serving to bring in “an influx of travelers,” or out-of-state workers, who are helping to close the gap.

The industry in New Mexico, he said, is “seeing new people coming into construction, (but), in general there isn’t always enough skilled labor to train them.”



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