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NM job picture: On the up? Or not?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s unemployment rate for March, the most recent figure available, dipped to 5.6 percent, the lowest it’s been since December 2008 but still the second-highest in the nation.

But that level is also about a point below New Mexico’s historic average of 6.7 percent since 1980, points out Alison Felix, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City vice president.

So, is the glass half-empty, or half-full?

Alison Felix, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Felix thinks there’s room for the jobless rate to drop further.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s as low as it can get,” she said in a phone interview. “We’ve had lower unemployment rates in New Mexico, and it hasn’t been that long ago.”

She pointed to the period between 2000 and 2008, when the average jobless rate was 4.9 percent.

But leading economists in the state say current trends aren’t encouraging.

Jeff Mitchell, director of the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research.

The “real narrative” lies in figures showing population and job growth, said Jeff Mitchell, director of the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research.

Before the recession, he said, New Mexico was generally “fast-growing,” with people moving into the region and employment growth higher than average nationwide.

That was true, he said, even when the unemployment rate was rising.

“What’s different about (this) post-recession isn’t just that the unemployment rate is high compared to the country’s, but that the rate of job growth is low,” he said. “And, it so happens, so is the rate of labor force growth.”

That was not necessarily the case during previous periods of relatively high unemployment, he said.

Even in the 1980s, when the state’s unemployment rate reached a peak of 9.7 percent, it was typically seeing labor force growth. In fact, there were periods when New Mexico’s labor force was the third-fastest growing in the nation, Mitchell said.

Jim Peach, a New Mexico State University economist, noted that New Mexico still has nearly 10,000 fewer jobs than just before the recession started. It might catch up next March — if it continues the plodding growth of about 1 percent it has been seeing, he said.

New Mexico State University Regents Professor James Peach (Source: NMSU)

“That’s nothing to brag about,” he said. “It’ nice that we had a little job growth over the last year — I’m not knocking that … but if you take a longer-term perspective, we haven’t done that well.”

For example, although construction has been the fastest-growing industry in the state lately, there are still about 11,000 fewer jobs than there were a decade ago, he said.

Another way to measure the state’s economic progress is by looking at per capita income: New Mexico’s is roughly 80 percent of the national average — about the same as it was 50 years ago.

“We have not gained relative to the nation over that 50-year span,” Peach said. “That’s a big one. That suggests that we’ve been less than successful in our economic development efforts.”

Peach said the state has had some success when it comes to luring jobs.

“Don’t get me wrong, when the Economic Development Department has a success, that’s cool. I celebrate that,” Peach said. “But the net change is nothing to brag about. Overall, we’re not doing enough.”