Despite surge in job seekers, NM jobless rate declines again in June

San Juan College professor touts increased labor market participation rate

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON − Despite seeing the jobless rate increase in all four of the state's metropolitan statistical areas, New Mexico posted another reduction in its overall unemployment rate in June and continued to make up ground on the national rate.

At first glance, the figures released July 22 by the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions appeared to show contradictory results. The jobless rate across New Mexico declined to 4.9% in June from the May figure of 5.1%. But the unemployment rate rose significantly in all four of the state's population centers − nowhere more than in the Farmington metropolitan statistical area, where it climbed from 4.7% in May to 5.8% in June.

Increases of that nature normally might be considered a setback in the state's efforts to recover from the COVID-19 economic downturn. But Lorenzo Reyes, the vice president for workforce, economic and resource development at San Juan College, said they reflect a positive change in the labor market.

The higher unemployment rates in the Farmington, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces MSAs are all the result of thousands of people re-entering the job market after a prolonged absence, he said − what he refers to as the labor market participation rate. In the Farmington MSA alone, he pointed out, there were more than 1,000 additional job seekers in June than there were in May, and the state's other three MSAs posted similar increases.

Lorenzo Reyes

"The labor force increased significantly," Reyes said of the one-month jump in the number of job seekers. "There was a sharp increase in the number of people looking for work."

In the Albuquerque MSA, where the number of job seekers climbed by more than 2,000 people, the jobless rate increased from 3.8% in May to 4.6% in June. In the Las Cruces MSA, where there were approximately 500 additional folks looking for work in June, the unemployment rate increased from 4.4% to 5.3%. And in the Santa Fe MSA, which saw its number of job seekers swell by approximately 900 people, the jobless rate went from 3.5% to 4.2%.

Even so, unemployment still fell across New Mexico as a whole, allowing the state to slowly continue to narrow the gap on the U.S. jobless rate, which remained at 3.6% for the fourth month in a row, suggesting the national rate may have bottomed out for now. New Mexico's unemployment rate in March was 5.3% − 1.7 percentage points behind the national average – but it is now 1.3 points higher than the U.S. rate.

The New Mexico jobless rate remains the highest of all 50 states, as it has been for the past six months.

Reyes found the June figures highly encouraging, explaining that the increase in the number of New Mexico job seekers reflects a growing confidence in the market. He was especially pleased by the jump in the number of job seekers in San Juan County, where there long has been a mismatch between the folks looking for work and the kinds of jobs available, he said.

"That's a good sign," Reyes said.

He attributed the increase in the number of job seekers to a willingness by employers to pay higher salaries and provide better benefits while creating a work environment that protects employees from COVID-19. He said there also has been an increase in affordable, accessible child care that has allowed workers who are parents to get back into the market.

Those are all things that Reyes has been preaching since the pandemic began. He said he is pleased to see them begin to take root, but he said the bump in labor market participation will not continue if things don't keep changing. He said there needs to be more of a dialog between college officials, government officials and employers to formulate a coordinated plan of attack.

"There's still a mismatch between the skills we need and the labor force," he said, referring to San Juan County. "That's the challenge. … I think we've taken a very passive approach, if you will, so far. The conversation needs to take a different approach."

Reyes said all the community stakeholders need to figure out how to make more and better job training opportunities available to those seeking work. And once that training has been provided, employers need to make a commitment to hiring those folks, he said.

With the proper training, he said, there are plenty of opportunities for people not just to find a job that provides them with a steady paycheck, but one that offers them meaningful work around which they can build a life. He said there continue to be significant employment opportunities in San Juan County in the hospitality, information technology, education and health services industries, but people have to be trained to perform those jobs.

"That formula works, but it has to be more coordinated and more intentional on the part of all parties," he said.

The increase in the number of job seekers led to San Juan County posting the ninth-highest jobless rate in the state in June compared to the 10-highest rate in May. Luna County led the way again at 11.5%, followed by McKinley (6.9), Taos and Lea (6.6%), Cibola and Torrance (6.5%), Mora (6.3%), and Guadalupe and Sierra (6.2%) counties.

Los Alamos County still has the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2.5%, although that figure was up from 1.9% in May.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.