New Mexico is in an economic crisis.
Not because of lack of work. More than 31,000 jobs have been created for non-farm jobs, according to a recent report from the state Department of Workforce Solutions.
The problem is our low labor force participation rate, just 56.8%, the third-lowest behind West Virginia and Mississippi, according to the most recent unadjusted data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Despite the abundance of work, too few workers raise the price of everything.
“No one can get anybody to come to work,” state Rep. Luis Terrazas, R-Santa Clara, said of his 77-year-old father, who has been building homes in Silver City for decades.
The elder Terrazas plans to retire after 45 years of not being able to find workers — only after he completes his last construction project.
It’s a story we’re seeing across the state.
Workers struggle to limit the number of days restaurants are open. Hotels cannot afford housekeepers. Schools cannot hire enough teachers and bus drivers. High-paying jobs in engineering, health care, computer systems and higher education are also going unfilled.
Some of the workforce solutions have to do with the high number of people with disabilities in New Mexico, he said. Since 1999, the number of people with disabilities covered by Old Age and Survivors Disability Insurance has doubled, while the number of people with disabilities receiving Supplemental Security Income has increased by more than 45 percent.
New Mexico’s unemployment rate is higher than surrounding states. If we had the same labor force participation as the rest of the country, we would have about 100,000 more workers.
DWS Deputy Secretary Yolanda Córdova said another reason is drug addiction, a cancer that affects many new Mexican families, our economy and our communities.
We also have an aging population and out-of-state migration of working-age adults.
So what are we doing?
College, Vocational/Technical Education
State legislatures recently allocated more than $100 million to higher education grants for nurses and social workers, allocated $10 million to employer services and youth internships, and expanded opportunity scholarships and fully funded lottery scholarships to make college certificates essentially free and degrees affordable for New Mexicans. .
Encouraging vocational training for those who are not interested in a four-year degree is the right way. Hobbs opened a $50 million career and technical education center with the help of local and private investment. “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe was a special guest at May’s grand opening.
Hobbs’ superintendent of schools said about half of high school graduates pursue technical track careers. Encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs can be a crucial step in overcoming economic apathy. Jobs in the skilled trades pay well and are always in demand.
The slope should be a cliff of advantage
Government social programs that penalize increasing your earnings by working extra hours are part of our low labor force participation rate. Last June, nearly half of all New Mexicans were enrolled in at least one income assistance or health program from the state’s Department of Human Services.
If the prospect of a better job doesn’t outweigh what a family loses in food or childcare assistance, then it makes no sense to fall off the cliff and cling to benefits that keep your family working.
But government programs should be a bridge to something better, not a way of life. They are not designed to lift people out of poverty or make dreams come true. They also don’t contribute to 401k or other retirement programs. We have a looming pension crisis with the majority of Mexican workers 50 and older having no retirement savings.
“We have to figure out how we can (climb) these cliffs so that they don’t get encouraged,” said Rob Black, CEO and president of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce.
The state should try to move that sharp break in benefits into a slope-and-climb approach, perhaps temporarily supplementing benefits for bootstrappers who want to climb the income ladder.
Data on why many do not work
Workforce Solutions plans to set up focus groups to examine individuals who are not working and receiving unemployment benefits – and ask why they are not working. The results can be brilliant and should be made public. Instead of throwing more money at the problem, let’s find out whether our reliance on government benefits, lack of affordable childcare, or persistent drug use is keeping people out of the workforce. Or are most of us too old and too disabled to join the workforce, making retaining our younger residents all the more important?
The state expanded child care subsidies to help New Mexicans return to work. We also increased the minimum wage, required private businesses to provide paid sick leave, and added a back-to-work program for retirees. State and business leaders are doing more — including giving money to pay employers higher wages.
Still, more than 480,000 New Mexicans 16 and older are not employed. And last year we had the fourth lowest workforce participation rate for women. We can and must do better, but we need to figure out how to put our shoulders to the wheel.
This editorial originally appeared in The Albuquerque Journal. It is written by the members of the editorial board and is not signed because it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the authors.