Part two of a two-part series
Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Fewer New Mexicans are joining the workforce compared to other states. And that begs the question: What will it take to draw people back to work?
State and business leaders are coming up with ideas ranging from providing employers funds to pay higher salaries to helping teens gain interest and skills in trade positions.
Those were among the initiatives the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions described to policymakers during a Legislative Finance Committee meeting last month.
“There’s been some real targeted pieces that we’re doing with industry engagement,” said DWS Deputy Secretary Yolanda Cordova. “We’ve made some investments to increase the number and availability of short-term training programs.”
The number of non-working adults has been a longtime concern for the state, with the labor force participation rate standing at roughly 57%, according to recent data. That compares to the national rate of 62%.
Some initiatives tackle short-term solutions, others more long term.
One focus for the department is on reimbursing businesses, specifically in the hospitality and tourism industry. The department earmarked $2.5 million in federal funds for businesses to attract new hires by raising wages or “whatever they have to do to compete,” DWS Employment Services Division Director Marcos Martinez said. The program allows for $5,000 for every new full-time hire and about half of that for hired part-time employees, Martinez said.
The program is partnering with the New Mexico Tourism Department and the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department. It has been ongoing for a little more than half a year, and is now planning to expand the program in the next three months to include businesses in the health care and child care industries.
“In talking to the industry, their struggle was capital (and) having those funds on hand to do what they need to do,” he said, adding that health care and child care “are the two that the data is showing us are struggling so we’re looking at what that program looks like.”
The department has experienced a reocurrence in the number of unemployed who are receiving benefits without following through on their job searching requirements.
That is something Janay Brashear of Giving Home Health Care has seen first hand. She says people apply – but then fail to follow up.
“We haven’t been staffed up, since before COVID,” she said. “We have had more people show interest, but it’s still not where we want to be. We’re getting hundreds of applicants and then we only chat with maybe 20% of them.”
Cordova told policymakers the department will quickstart its relationship with those receiving unemployment benefits through a program that “is a complete shift in our model, and our interaction with the unemployed.”
“The beauty for us is once they walk into that office (to file a claim), we can engage them in reemployment services immediately,” Martinez said. Previously, “we were not catching them until five, six, seven weeks down the road. A lot of times people adjust their spending and get a little comfortable with that.”
Other ideas include:
• To target youth and career exploration, the department has worked with community and state partners on a project that is meant to teach kids in junior high school and high school about trade positions that are needed in the state.
“We’ve heard that loud and clear from the districts and also from the employers that those are the skills that they really want to see our youth have an early experience with and an opportunity for,” Martinez said.
The New Mexico program, slated to start next year, operates in half a dozen states across the country and teaches students about technical career positions such as “welding” or other needed trades, said New Mexico Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Rob Black.
• Another approach to getting people employed is to connect them to career advisers through Ready New Mexico, a program aimed at training and educating job seekers in the state. Martinez said there is a toll-free number – 800-303-3599 – that people in rural areas of the state can contact and get employment help immediately.
Seven counties – including Otero, Lea, Curry, Eddy, McKinley, Cibola and Torrance – had lower workforce participation rates in May 2022 than before the pandemic hit in 2019, state data shows.
• The department also plans to form focus groups to survey individuals who are not working and aren’t getting unemployment benefits – and ask why they are no longer working.
“One of the difficulties for us is finding the individuals that are just sitting out and not looking,” Martinez said, because when they are on unemployment, “we actually have access to those individuals.”
The state has already implemented policy changes to help New Mexicans get back to work such as expanding childcare subsidies, adding a return-to-work program for retirees, requiring paid sick leave and increasing the minimum wage, said LFC analyst Eric Chenier.
Community leaders chime in
Black acknowledged there are no surefire answers to fixing the workforce issue – and finding a way to get people back to work. He said there are three likely approaches – short-term, medium-term and long-term ones – in solving the issue.
One short-term approach includes focusing on the expectations of employees – looking at pay and benefits, and seeing where hybrid work might fit in.
A longer-term state policy change he favors would tackle the fact that some prospective job seekers lose certain benefits when they rejoin the workforce. Current policies can lead to the sharp cutoff of benefits rather than a phased-out approach.
“We need to figure out how we can (climb) those cliffs so that they aren’t disincentivized,” he said.
Danielle Casey, president of Albuquerque Regional Economic Alliance, said her economic development organization has been working to attract new, high-paying jobs for New Mexicans – something that may incentivize people to jump back into the workforce.
“Developing training programs that look to the future of employer demands and needs and not just current labor shortages is a key component that will help get us there,” Casey said.
Inflation drawing people get back to work?
Some businesses the Journal spoke with say inflation has started to boost the workforce a bit.
And that sentiment holds true for Desiree Hayes, who was looking for a part-time job at the Michael Padilla job fair last month at Harrison Middle School in the South Valley.
Hayes had been looking for a job, due in part to having a child this year and what she says are the rising costs of goods. Hayes had a job with a funeral home, she said, but was let go for taking too much time off after her child encountered health issues. She has since been rehired by the same company.
“These days, with the cost of everything and inflation going up, it’s better to have two incomes,” she said.
Judy Leyba also attended the job fair in the South Valley. She already has a summer job with Bernalillo County’s lunch program, but she needed a job for the rest of the year.
Leyba in a follow-up interview with the Journal said she was hired on the spot as a part-time cashier with Albertsons, and has since secured interviews for full-time positions with the Bernalillo County Assesor and Albuquerque Public Schools due to the contacts she made at the fair.
“You never know what’s coming,” Leyba said. “You want to make sure you … have enough money in the bank for a little wiggle room.”
Journal reporter Alaina Mencinger contributed to this report.