ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With the highest unemployment rate in the nation, New Mexico is banking on a tiny infusion of federal relief money through the American Rescue Plan to boost the job market in a poverty-stricken corner of the state and in some cases provide a second chance to would-be workers with a criminal record or those recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.
Top federal officials announced the job funding Wednesday, saying a total of $500 million was being doled out for programs in more than 30 states and in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Economic Development Administration received more than 500 applications requesting more than $6.5 billion, or about 13 times more than the available funding.
New Mexico will share in just a fraction of that to develop a partnership among community colleges, hospitals, construction firms and unions with the goal of building an employment pipeline in the northern part of the state.
Led by the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District, part of the effort will include deploying a mobile classroom to provide training and apprenticeships in the construction industry for hard-to-reach populations.
As for health care, Santa Fe Community College will work with hospitals and recovery centers in Santa Fe, Espanola and Taos to create a program similar to one in Arizona that has for the past decade streamlined student pathways into clinical on-the-job training.
The funding comes amid raging inflation and rising interest rates in a state where joblessness continues to outpace the national average as employers struggle to find willing workers.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday also noted the shortfall of health care professionals in the state — a long struggle that was exacerbated in early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
She suggested the jobs funding would be “transformative.”
“This is a state that has really struggled based on the rural nature of our populations and the fact that we are a sparsely populated state,” she said. “Really growing and diversifying our economy so that it meets the needs of those families and workers where they are has been a challenge for decades.”
Nationwide, employers posted fewer job openings in June and companies have complained that it is hard to fill open positions.
In New Mexico, the unemployment rate dropped to 4.9% in June. While that’s down from 7.3% a year ago, it’s still higher than the national average and the highest among other states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves told reporters Wednesday that the grants are aimed at critical industries that range from health care to energy production, manufacturing and wildfire prevention.
In California, for example, the Foundation for California Community Colleges has been awarded more than $21 million to develop statewide infrastructure for training in forest health and fire safety. Federal officials said the emerging sector has the potential to grow into a $39 billion industry, but there are shortages of fire and forestry crew leaders, scientists and others.
The grant program will last for three years and officials in New Mexico expect about 1,100 workers to be placed in jobs. However, how the programs will be bankrolled after that is uncertain.
Monica Abeita with the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District said she’s hopeful that success will lead to private investments that can keep the programs running.
Abeita outlined some of the challenges facing northern New Mexico, including poverty and generational substance abuse. She also said the economy is based largely on tourism, which means low paying, seasonal jobs that don’t provide a career ladder beyond the service sector.
Another target for prospective participants is the 3,000 people who graduate from recovery centers annually in northern New Mexico. By getting them lined up for a job before graduation, state officials said that will give them a goal to work for and hopefully reduce recidivism.
Abeita said officials also are working with local employers to get over the hurdle of hiring those who have been incarcerated or have had substance abuse problems.
“We feel like everyone in the region is committed to this,” she said. “We know that if we don’t change this dynamic and make a fundamental change to some of these structural problems, our region can’t move forward.”