Despite high unemployment, San Juan County still has thousands of jobs available

San Juan College VP says lack of qualified workers remains big issue

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Lorenzo Reyes said there are 2,700 jobs listed as available in San Juan County.
  • The Farmington metropolitan statistical area had a jobless rate of 6.7% for January, the highest of the state's four MSAs.
  • Reyes said those jobs are going unfilled because so many people lack the specialized skills, training or degrees those jobs require.
Lorenzo Reyes

FARMINGTON — Like most other places in the United States, San Juan County has seen a good deal of volatility in its labor market in the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with the unemployment rate fluctuating wildly over that time and many employers whipsawing between having too many workers, then not enough.

But while a more sedate period may lie ahead, the Farmington metropolitan statistical area still faces a number of challenges in reconciling its relatively high unemployment rate — at 6.7% for January, the highest among the state's four MSAs — with its high number of jobs available.

It's an apparent contradiction that defies easy explanation, according to Lorenzo Reyes, the associate vice president for workforce, economic and resource development at San Juan College.

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"The volatility is going to decrease significantly," Reyes said of the unemployment rate, adding that he expects it to continue to inch downward. "The biggest challenge for the community is finding the qualified workers with the right skills for all those jobs."

Reyes said there are 2,700 jobs listed as available in San Juan County, a figure that scarcely seems possible during a time when so many people are out of work. But Reyes said those jobs are going unfilled because so many people lack the specialized skills, training or degrees those jobs require — most of them in the fields of information technology, health care, education and public administration.

That's what makes the job market so tight, Reyes said, explaining that employers need to acknowledge that fact and become more creative and flexible about filling those positions.

Companies that have not been able to fill vacant positions over the long term need to be considering paying higher salaries and offering better benefits, he said, but they also need to think about taking a different approach to recruiting and adapting their work environment to this new reality, he said.

That means creating apprenticeships, internships and "earn as you learn" situations in which workers can generate at least a little income while going through a training program or pursuing a degree, he said.

"One thing that's going to be important is the acceptance of the business community of individuals who do not have the skills (they need) but who have the desire to learn skills," Reyes said.

Warren Unsicker, economic development director for the City of Farmington, said some of the factors that drove so many people out of the work force over the last two years — a fear of exposure to illness, lack of child care, etc. — have not disappeared, but they have begun to wane. Still, he said, most job hunters are not in a position where they have to take the first position that is offered to them.

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"The expectation has shifted in terms of what employees have been willing to take," he said. "People have become more choosy about what they take to go back into the work force."

Unsicker said he sees a silver lining from all the chaos the labor market has experienced over the last two years — a greater willingness by many young people to take a chance and go into business for themselves.

Warren Unsicker.

"One thing I did notice as we went through this transition was a rise in entrepreneurship," he said, noting that phenomenon may have had something to do with keeping the area's unemployment rate relatively high.

"People are taking themselves out of the work force by doing that, but it's a plus overall for the community because they're creating their own jobs and they're in the process of creating new jobs. A lot of people seem to be creating the job they want as opposed to (accepting) a job they can find."

Unsicker identified another bright spot in the local economy, as well — the continued development of outdoor recreation-based businesses, which has been a point of emphasis for various government entities in the county for the last few years.

"We saw even in the heart of the pandemic how that can contribute (to economic diversity efforts)," he said, noting that over the past few years, a rafting guide service and yoga studio have opened in Farmington. "A lot of entrepreneurs are moving into that space to meet those needs, that desire people have to get outside and see new places."

Whereas Farmington used to be very much a find-it-yourself outdoor recreation destination, Unsicker said more and more businesses are responding to that demand by offering what he called "curated experiences."

He said staff members at the Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau have told him their agency increasingly reports having encounters with visitors who stumble across Farmington on their way to another destination, then decide to spend a few nights here once they learn about the increased number of outdoor recreation opportunities available to them.

Reyes also said the outdoor recreation sector can become a significant contributor to the local labor market, but he said he believes that potential lies more in the manufacturing of outdoors products, rather than in the outdoor recreation service industry.

San Juan College was deeply involved in the effort to encourage outdoor recreation entrepreneurship, he said, but the pandemic waylaid that plan. Now that the impact of the pandemic is declining, he said, the institution is primed to restart those initiatives.

Another area that Unsicker has tapped for potential expansion is the neutral work market — folks whose job allows them to work from home and live wherever they want.

"We're starting to see people move into Farmington and bring their jobs with them," he said.

That kind of growth is particularly attractive because it doesn’t require any job development or business start-up work, he said, and is instead based on selling San Juan County's quality of life. The same goes for efforts to draw more retirees here, he said.

"We're trying to attract more of that," he said. "It's a way of attracting new revenue."

But Reyes said San Juan County's relatively high cost of living, especially for housing, is working against those efforts. He said many of the recruiting attempts he has mounted through the college have encountered that hurdle.

"That's been a factor in them deciding not to move here," he said of some of the people to whom he has spoken.

Reyes said the loss of some 1,500 people from the local labor market over the last two years remains a major concern, but the bigger issue is the number of underemployed people — those who are working only part time because they don't possess the skills or education they need to qualify for all those better-paying jobs that remain available.

There is no shortcut to resolving that issue, he said, noting that if companies are committing to providing better pay and benefits, and more flexible work arrangements, workers need to do their part by taking advantage of the education and training opportunities available to them.

San Juan College has responded to the situation by establishing partnerships with various local entities, including three school districts, to provide that education and training, and target some of those worker shortages, he said.

"The college is ready to establish those partnerships," Reyes said. "We've seen how effective they can be."

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