No job shortage in San Juan County despite high unemployment, experts say

Need for service industry, health care workers remains high

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — As San Juan County residents celebrate another Labor Day, they will do so amid a local unemployment rate that continues to rank as one of the highest in New Mexico — at a time when many local employers continue to complain they can't fill the jobs they have open.

According to those who keep close tabs on the local labor market, that apparent dichotomy is a very real and confounding situation. But they don't expect it to continue for too much longer, as they see numerous changes coming over the short and long terms.

Jamie Church, president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce, said she has heard repeatedly from many of her members that they have been unable to hire enough employees to operate at full strength since many of the COVID-19 business restrictions were lifted.

Jamie Church, president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce.

"They're getting applicants, but the number of those actually looking for a job is very small," she said, explaining that relatively few of those applicants actually go through the interview process, and even fewer actually show up for work if they are hired.

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Church said she suspects there are several reasons for that. She said many of those applicants may want to return to work but are unable to because they can't find child care. Others may still be wary of contracting COVID-19, and still others may be waiting to return to the labor force until their stimulus money and unemployment benefits have run their course.

"I don't think it's one single thing," she said. "I think it's a combination of things."

Church and Jill Bishop, the director of the Center for Student Careers and Employment at San Juan College, said that phenomenon has hit the service and hospitality segments of the economy especially hard. Bishop noted that many of the jobs that are available in San Juan County are more suited for those seeking part-time work, not a full-time career.

"They're great for our students, but not for somebody who used to work in the oil field and is used to a certain salary," she said.

The restaurant industry has borne the brunt of the labor shortage, Church said.

"I don't know a single restaurant that went back to full capacity because they didn't have the staff to go back to 100%," she said. "Now, they're waiting for the incentives to wind down."

But eateries aren't the only business looking for workers. Both women said there is a significant number of jobs open for people in other fields, including those where folks can easily build a career.

"Health care has plenty of jobs available," Bishop said. "I've seen a lot of companies offering hiring bonuses not just for nurses, which is what you usually see, but medical assistants and (certified nurse aides). There is a plethora of jobs in health care."

She said there also are jobs for the taking in San Juan County's oil and gas sector, although they're a little harder to find.

"They tend to be a little fewer and farther between than they are down south where you have more of those opportunities," she said.

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No immunity to the problem

 Church believes the lack of workers has hit almost every sector of the economy.

"I see every industry is having a shortage right now," she said, explaining that even entities such as the City of Farmington, San Juan College and San Juan County have been looking for help over the past few months.

"Across the board, people are hiring," she said.

The Farmington Metropolitan Statistical Area's unemployment rate of 9.3% for July was the highest among the state's four MSAs and was considerably higher than the statewide rate of 7.6% and the national rate of 5.4%. Church said she was a bit perplexed by what she labeled a mismatch between the jobless rate and the number of work opportunities that exist in the county.

"I think the jobs are there," she said. "I just think a lot of people are hesitant to go back to work."

Church believes anyone who was dissatisfied with their work situation when the pandemic hit is well positioned to move in a new direction. She cited the high number of grants and scholarship opportunities that are available for job training and education.

"There are excellent opportunities for people to go back to school and so many opportunities to get training," she said, adding that she doesn't recall ever having seen so much funding devoted to programs of that nature.

Jill Bishop

Bishop said San Juan College is devoted to helping people take advantage of those opportunities, regardless of whether people are seeking a career that requires a degree or one that just requires advanced skills.

"We have some exciting apprenticeship programs that hopefully will fill in the gaps for employers looking for skilled workers," she said, referring to the college's programs in automotive repair, commercial driving, plumbing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning as examples.

What about the future?

Meanwhile, new fields continue to open. Both Bishop and Church are excited about the promise the outdoor recreation sector holds for San Juan County and the emphasis many local government entities are placing on growing that segment of the economy.

"I think it's going to be a major part of our economy," Church said, explaining that while the pandemic may have slowed the progress the county was making on that front, it hasn't derailed it. "I think there are so many opportunities for outdoor equipment manufacturing, and that's where the industry really grows."

Bishop said the growth of outdoor recreation businesses offers an awesome opportunity for the county, one that could help it move past its longtime dependence on the oil and gas sector of the economy.

"I'd like to see a balance," she said. "When we just have one industry that's way far ahead of the others, when something adverse happens, it's hard to get past that."

She pointed to the success of the college's drone program as an example of a field that is not directly connected to outdoor recreation, but one that might benefit from it, all the same.

"As we get more companies that are more invested in that, that'll grow more," Bishop said.

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San Juan County's wide-open spaces and relatively low population also might prove attractive in other ways as fears inspired by the pandemic linger. Many Americans have chosen to move away from population centers in recent months, especially those who are able to work remotely.

Church sees folks like that as a potential boom for the county, especially since they bring their jobs — and their income — with them.

"The idea of remote work is a concept that may be new to Farmington, but it's very common in so many cities," she said, explaining that the increased availability of coworking, flexible office spaces will help that trend grow.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.