FARMINGTON — New Mexico Cabinet Secretary of Workforce Solutions Celina Bussey said the construction employment may never reach pre-recession levels in this state.

She said the construction industry is the second largest employer in the state and her office is trying to find employment for those and other displaced workers in a fast changing job market.

"The labor market is a whole new ball game," she said in an hour-long presentation at the Four Corners Economic Development membership meeting Tuesday afternoon.

She outlined challenges her department faces with providing employers a qualified workforce.

"I think one of the huge challenges to the department is making ourselves visible to the employers," Bussey said in an interview after her presentation.

During her presentation, in which she used a 12-slide PowerPoint presentation, she gave employers ideas on how her department can help identify qualified employees, including searching for workers using her department's assessment data.

She said many employers are looking for workers who possess a broader set of skills that can include computer skills, customer service skills, efficient research abilities, and critical thinking skills among others.

Looking at the larger picture, she said, her staff has been talking with state education departments to broaden the scope of education to meet the needs employers have for prospective workers.

Bussey said education and workforce leaders need to collaborate so schools can produce students who are ready to work and are trainable.

"Every employer will tell you that it all starts in the classrooms," she said.

Bussey added the changes that New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez's administration has made to give schools letter grades helps open dialogue between educators and employers.

"It's all related," Bussey said.

The economy is still recovering and one area that continues to be a problem is the unemployment rate for younger workers between 16 and 19 years old, she said. National unemployment rates are as high as 40 percent, she said.

"The competition is fierce," Bussey said, adding that teen workers are competing with workers who have 10 years of experience and a strong set of skills for entry-level jobs the younger workers occupied 10 years ago, such as fast-food and entry level retail positions.

Bussey said workers can increase their odds of finding a job by developing their soft skills.

"Soft skills are more important than technical. Who will show up, can listen, take direction and not spit back in my face? (Employers) will train them to get them the technical skills they need," she said.

Small business owners are still recovering from the recession as well. A risk they face is hiring a worker, then having them leave work after they become eligible for unemployment benefits, Bussey said.

Bussey said she wants to explore creating a new program to place some workers collecting unemployment insurance with new employers. The worker would continue to get their benefits while the employer gets a worker without having to take a financial risk. And if the two decide they are a good match, then the person could start working as an employee.

After the presentation, Ray Hagerman, Four Corners Economic Development CEO, said he plans to form a work group that includes educators, business people, community members and others to address some workforce training issues in the area.

We've "got to do it as a community and find those solutions that make sense," he said.

He said training and internships play important roles in creating a strong workforce, but employers are basically looking for good people to hire.

"When it comes down to it, I see lots of our employers (here) and you guys will hire decent human beings," he said. "What we are failing at is producing decent human beings."

Erny Zah is The Daily Times business editor. He can be reached at 505-564-4638.and ezah@daily-times.com. Follow him @ernyzah on Twitter.