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Stagnant wages in New Mexico

If you are a home health care worker or a restaurant cook, you are lucky to have the

type of job whose numbers are growing in New Mexico.

You have company among those who provide services for the elderly and disabled and workers in the “leisure and hospitality” business, all of whom hold the types of jobs that have been in demand and are expected to keep growing for at least the next six years.

But as much as you might like your work, do not expect to get rich.

While New Mexico has seen some expansion in the number of jobs since the Great Recession, many of those jobs offer relatively low wages.

At the same time, the state has been shedding positions that offer higher pay, such as jobs in construction, mining, transportation and the oil industry.

While New Mexico’s average weekly wage has grown by 10.2 percent between the third quarters of 2009 and 2015, the nation’s has grown 15.8 percent. The average annual growth rate between the two periods has been 1.7 percent for New Mexico and 2.5 percent for the nation.

Overall, the average weekly wage in New Mexico was much lower than the nation’s, making the state 43rd in the third quarter of 2015. While the state recorded an average weekly wage of $798 in the third quarter of 2015, the nation’s was $974.

Diana Garcia started her career with Lovelace as a dishwasher a decade ago, moving up to her current job as patient care tech in the labor and delivery part of Lovelace Women's Hospital. She wants to help out in surgical rooms – a move that would increase her responsibilities and her wages.

Diana Garcia started her career with Lovelace as a dishwasher a decade ago, moving up to her current job as patient care tech in the labor and delivery part of Lovelace Women’s Hospital. She wants to help out in surgical rooms – a move that would increase her responsibilities and her wages.

The problem of stubbornly low wage growth is not a new one for New Mexico or for the nation, said Jeff Mitchell, director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at the University of New Mexico

“This is a problem that’s been developing for decades,” he said. “What has happened is that in the recession it’s gotten worse, and it’s become more sort of polarized. Some jobs are really suffering and other ones are seeing raises.”

“It’s the middle being carved out,” he said.

Joy Forehand, a state Department of Workforce Solutions spokeswoman, said some of New Mexico’s low-wage jobs lead to promotions and higher salaries and are often just a starting point for people in the workforce.

At the other end of the wage scale, a precipitous drop in oil prices has meant a loss of jobs that paid as much as $32 an hour for a refinery operator, for example. And many construction jobs – at $41.81 an hour for a manager – were lost when the pace of building slowed as a result of the Great Recession.

Recovery in those areas could just as sharply increase, although it’s hard to predict because the nature of job growth is “constantly fluctuating,” Forehand said.

Rising up

Samantha Funes works as a patient care technician at Lovelace Women’s Hospital, and she loves her job.

She bathes newborn babies, takes their mothers’ vital signs and performs other jobs among women who have just given birth.

“Bringing a baby into the world is a miracle, and being part of that miracle every day is a blessing,” Funes said. “I love my job. I don’t think I’d do it for the wages.”

Funes, who is a certified nursing assistant, has been at Lovelace since 2007.

Nursing assistants, as a category defined by the federal government, make an average hourly wage of $12.86 in New Mexico, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Funes said she would like to try working in a labor and delivery role and is looking into becoming a registered nurse.

Samantha Funes makes up a bed at Lovelace Women's Hospital. Funes is a patient care technician at the hospital, working among newborn babies and mothers. She says her work is a "blessing" and she is pursuing training to become a registered nurse.

Samantha Funes makes up a bed at Lovelace Women’s Hospital. Funes is a patient care technician at the hospital, working among newborn babies and mothers. She says her work is a “blessing” and she is pursuing training to become a registered nurse.

Doing that job, she could earn a beginning salary of about $54,000 a year, according to Tamra Mason, dean of the School of Health, Wellness and Public Safety at Central New Mexico Community College.

The community college is graduating up to 300 nursing students a year in what is the largest program in Mason’s school. CNM matches its enrollment to New Mexico’s job demand so it is not flooding the market with graduates who can not find work, Mason said.

And what is demanded now in the lower-wage categories are nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomists who draw blood and pharmacy technicians, she said.

Phlebotomists, for example, earn a starting wage of about $21,000 a year, but it only takes one semester to become certified.

“All of these shorter programs are a way for students to begin making a wage,” Mason said. “They often times will stay in that profession, but they can also work part time as they work toward something else.”

It’s common for nursing students and technical assistants to move up to higher wage jobs within the health care industry, Mason said.

Job growth

The state’s most recent report on job growth was for March, and it showed an increase of 0.4 percent, or 3,000 jobs, compared to the same month last year. It was the largest gain since September.

new map temp_feb_16Figures for April on both job growth and unemployment are due out Friday.

The biggest job increase was in the leisure and hospitality sector, which saw a rise of 5.3 percent. The average weekly wage among private employers in that category in the third quarter of 2015 was $332, according to calculations by the state Department of Workforce Solutions. That is less than half the average private sector wage of all occupations combined in New Mexico.

The second-highest job growth in New Mexico in March was in the education and health services category, which saw a 5.1 percent increase. Wages among private employers in that sector were $750, about $20 less than overall private sector wages.

One of the fastest growing industries in the health care sector provides services for the elderly and disabled, and that industry’s statewide private-sector average weekly wage was $295 for third quarter 2015.

It’s possible that wage is so low because many of those workers are on the job are only part-time, although there are no numbers to quantify that, according to the state.

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