Leaving New Mexico wasn’t a maybe – it was a have-to for Jesse Wood, a Farmington kid who graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2014. Like thousands of other grads, he was smart, talented and committed to his career path.
It led him straight out of the state.
By his junior year in UNM’s film and digital media department, he was making eye-popping videos about his passion in life: cars. By senior year, he was traveling the country making Hollywood-quality promo videos on the Formula Drift circuit, capturing gonzo drivers and fast cars skidding sideways.
He kept his eye out for the right job in New Mexico, but there wasn’t one.
“I freelanced for a while,” Wood, now 26, says by phone from Ventura, north of Los Angeles. “But the film world was in L.A., and so were the automotive companies. L.A. was the epicenter.”
In 2016, the epicenter became home.
He landed a dream job as creative director at Los Angeles-based Donut Media, creator of comedy-injected digital content for car lovers. Its YouTube channel has nearly a million subscribers.
Between 2011 and 2016, the years leading up to Wood’s departure, an unprecedented exodus of New Mexicans left the Land of Enchantment in search of jobs and homes. Economists estimate 42,000 more people exited the state than entered it.
The majority were college-educated, including 17,000 people with a bachelor’s degree. It was an alarming brain drain, and one of the highest rates of “out-migration” anywhere in the country, according to labor and census statistics.
“The data clearly indicate that out-migration is occurring at a disproportionate rate in better-educated younger adults and people with bachelor’s degrees,” says Jeff Mitchell, director of UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
No state can afford to lose high-quality, educated workers, the key ingredient for a thriving economy. But state officials say there is no telling when the out-flow will end.
“The single biggest problem is that people think they’re going to find a quick solution,” Mitchell says. “But successes won’t play out in the two to four years of an election cycle. In fact, the economy might get worse before it gets better.
“To take action anyway? That’s leadership. But who is the politician who says, ‘I’m going to take a stand and do what’s necessary even if it doesn’t benefit me politically?’ ”
The post-recession world demands a STEM-skilled workforce for jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. At minimum, workers need one or two years of education after high school, preferably from a technical or trade school. Other jobs require an associate, bachelor’s or advanced degree.
“You can’t be successful without a high-quality workforce – you just can’t,” says Scott Barnette, senior manager of development and operations at Continental Tire, who scours the globe to find sites for the company’s new projects. He recently chose Clinton, Miss., for a $1.4 billion tire plant slated to create 2,500 jobs.
In New Mexico, meanwhile, the dial is moving backward. For the first time in state history, the older generation is better educated than the younger generation, the New Mexico Higher Education Department reported in 2013.
When a state starts losing its qualified workforce, economies contract, unemployment rises and more people join the out-migration.
Wood recalls getting a sense of the downward spiral when he was a teenager in Farmington. He and his classmates at Piedra Vista High School were well aware of New Mexico’s low ranking for child well-being: For decades, New Mexico has had one of the nation’s highest rates of childhood poverty, high school dropouts, substance abuse and teen suicide.
On June 27, the state dropped to 50th in the Annie E. Casey Foundation child well-being rankings, where it had clutched a 49th-place rung since 2014.
“Younger people feel that futility,” Wood offers as a reason that people leave.
Doug Rasmussen, a site selection specialist at the St. Louis office of international corporate advising firm Duff & Phelps, has seen a lot of economic boom and bust during his 17-year career.
“No place is blue skies and roses always blooming. And no place is all negative,” Rasmussen says.
Site selection is a no-stone-unturned process that begins with a demographic study and expands to modeling, analytics and examining hundreds of data points.
Rasmussen travels to cities, looks at schools, and examines local and state government. He analyzes taxes, legal codes, environment regulations, utility costs, bond ratings, infrastructure, mass transit, airport schedules, real estate and labor costs, cell towers and broadband, building sites and economic incentives.
“In the end, the executives are going to be living in these places,” Rasmussen says. ” ‘Can I see myself living here? My employees living here? Can I see my kids going to these schools?’ That’s what they’ll be asking themselves.”
New Mexico’s education system might well prompt them to answer “no.”
Only 71 percent of high school students graduated on time, the nation’s second worst rate. The rate of bachelor’s degrees for 25- to 34-year-olds – 22 percent – is also the second-lowest, according to the U.S. Census. In No. 1 Massachusetts, the rate is 51 percent.
Youth unemployment is another problem. As of April, more than 20 percent of teens age 16 to 19 were jobless, labor statistics show.
“Every year we watch the young talent pack up and move away to places with jobs and better-paying jobs,” says Katherine Freeman, president and CEO of United Way of Santa Fe County.
She routinely observes professionals hesitate before moving here. “They look long and hard at education and state policies,” she says. They see troubled middle schools and high schools, but can’t afford private school tuition. “Coming here is a sacrifice.”
New Mexico has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country, while its neighbors and the rest of the nation are in a boom. In May, the state had 5.1 percent unemployment, a large improvement over the 6.5 percent unemployment it’s struggled with since 2014.
But it was no match for the 3 percent unemployment in Utah or the 4 percent in Texas, where the business climate is so alluring that two cities – Dallas and Austin – are in the running to become Amazon’s second headquarters.
Amazon HQ2 is expected to create 50,000 high-paying jobs and $5 billion in capital investment; the average annual salary will be $100,000, the company says.
How did Amazon narrow down its list of 238 applicant cities to a final 20? “Educational attainment” was a key driver.
The company said in its request for proposal that it “preferred” a location with a highly educated labor pool and enough people with STEM training to fill the thousands of jobs. Other requirements included top-tier universities and community colleges; high enrollment, grades and retention rates in higher education; top-quality K-12 schools; and plentiful K-12 STEM programs, the RFP says.
New Mexico was involved in two bids, but neither proposal made the final cut.
The state can be a hard sell for more modest projects, as well.
Consultants can quickly download a 2016 economic report for the state Legislature titled, pointedly, “New Mexico Job Horizon: No Country for Young Men (or Women).”
Waiting for jobs that do not yet exist may have a poetic ring to it, but Jesse Wood has plans for his life. He spends his days shooting viral videos like “Two Grannies, One Lamborghini” (6.6 million views and counting).
“I love it here,” Wood says, adding, “I love New Mexico, too. But for the better or the worse, the big pond is L.A.”
Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to investigative journalism. See projects.searchlightnm.com for more stories.