Three years after pandemic, San Juan County job market still recovering

San Juan College VP Lorenzo Reyes says much work remains to be done

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — With the three-year mark since the COVID-19 pandemic began fast approaching, San Juan County is still dealing with the fallout from the economic shutdown that accompanied the spread of the virus, according to a San Juan College vice president.

Lorenzo Reyes, the vice president of workforce development at the college, says the county has made significant progress in battling back from the effects of the pandemic. But much work remains to be done, he said, especially in regard to rebuilding the size of the civilian labor force.

“No, we have not fully recovered, and we’re not at pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

On the surface, Reyes acknowledged, things might look a little better than they are. According to the most recent figures from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, the Farmington metropolitan statistical area had an unemployment rate of 4.7% in October — considerably less than the rate of 6.3% it posted in February 2020, shortly before the pandemic began.

But Reyes described that figure as misleading, pointing to the fact that the labor force in San Juan County is 3,000 people smaller than it was three years ago. That’s a significant difference in a county of this size, he said, and it reflects the large number of people who have left the area in search of work elsewhere or who simply have given up on finding a job.

“When you look prior to the pandemic, there were more people in the labor field,” he said.

Reyes said the October unemployment figures also do not reflect the 60 layoffs recently announced by Westmoreland San Juan Mining LLC and the company’s plans to seal the San Juan Mine as part of a six-year reclamation plan. That move will deliver a double whammy to the local economy, he said.

Lorenzo Reyes

“Local governments are going to suffer from a loss of tax revenue,” he said. “But the impact on those individuals is going to be even more significant, especially if those people wind up leaving here.”

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of jobs available in San Juan County — a situation Reyes has noted repeatedly over the past several months. According to the October data, he said, the county had more than 3,100 job openings in fields ranging from health care and information technology to law enforcement and the service industry.

The problem continues to be a lack of qualified applicants for those positions, he said, as well as an unwillingness on the part of many job seekers to perform a lot of the jobs that need to be filled. He also said it will be difficult for a lot of those laid-off mine workers — who drew very good salaries by San Juan County standards — to find work locally that pays them a comparable wage.

A college degree is not necessary for many of those job openings in the area, Reyes said, but some type of certification is. Those accreditation programs often can be completed in matter of weeks or months, but Reyes said it is difficult for someone working a service-industry job to muster the time and resources required to complete a program of that nature, especially if they have a family.

“One of the things I would like to have happen is for there to be an initiative at the state level through which many of the individuals who might benefit from and take advantage of these openings could receive financial aid,” he said. “Right now, they don’t have access to the training or the opportunity to receive the training.”

San Juan College and other institutions around the state offer many financial aid programs for people who enroll in degree programs, he said, but there is much less assistance available for those who enroll in certificate programs. Unfortunately, those often are the folks who need help the most, he said.

“If you work in a retail store and you work part time, it’s very difficult to also pay for education or tuition,” he said.

Reyes said he believes many of those job openings could be filled quickly if people were placed in a position where they could get the training they need without jeopardizing their financial situation.

“It’s not that there’s not interest (in those jobs), it’s that people don’t have the resources to cover it,” he said.

One segment of the job market that has had a large number of openings for quite some time is law enforcement and corrections. San Juan County officials have had numerous job fairs throughout the year in an effort to increase staffing levels at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center, and the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office announced Nov. 30 it is launching a recruiting initiative that will include a $15,000 sign-on bonus for all new employees.

According to a news release from the agency, the Sheriff’s Office is 17% below its allocated staffing needs.

Shane Ferrari

“Law enforcement across the country is hurting for qualified men and women to take the oath and serve,” Sheriff Shane Ferrari states in the news release, noting that there has been a decline in the number of people applying for deputy sheriff positions over the last few years. “Our local agencies are also feeling this pressure.”

Additional employment opportunities are likely to arise in the next few years, thanks to the amount of public investment in infrastructure made by Congress over the last two years, Reyes said.

“There will be lots of new jobs building bridges, building roads, building water lines and building (Internet) connectivity,” he said. “That’s where we see the future.”

According to projections, Reyes said, a total of 113,000 such jobs are likely to be created across New Mexico over the next three or four years.

“This is why the college is strengthening its program and opportunities here, because right now, we don’t have enough trained members of the work force, and we don’t want to have to bring in workers from out of town to do those jobs,” he said.

Reyes said it’s also up to local employers to do their part to address the labor shortage by taking a closer look at their working conditions and their efforts to retain their current employees, thereby avoiding vacancies.

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