LAS CRUCES – Employment in New Mexico has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and the state Department of Workforce Solutions is taking a dual approach in the new year to speak to employers as well as job seekers.
Supplemental unemployment benefits that cushioned workers from unprecedented job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic came to an end in September, and a minimum wage increase took effect in some municipalities on Jan. 1, such as Las Cruces.
Yet many New Mexico workers are exercising options other than returning to previous fields of work, or are compelled to stay home to care for family members or contend with other obstacles.
On Jan. 27, acting DWS Secretary Ricky Serna will be at Las Cruces City Hall to co-host a "State of the Workforce" workshop for local employers to compare their experience to department data and discuss strategies for recruiting and hiring workers under current conditions.
In an interview, Serna said the discussion would begin with an overview of unemployment insurance claims and the state's impressions about why fewer workers are turning to work after a spike in unemployment in the early stages of the COVID-19 health emergency.
"Sometimes what we see statewide, in terms of data, is very different than from what employers are really feeling and experiencing day to day," Serna acknowledged. He said he wanted to hear from employers about difficulties filling available positions as well as positions that have been eliminated as businesses have adapted to changing customer demands, supply chain problems, labor shortages and other factors since 2020.
A representative from the state Human Services Department will join Serna to propose some solutions to obstacles New Mexico workers are reporting. The one Serna mentioned most often was childcare, often a large expense and currently a more unpredictable resource as schools periodically move to remote learning in response to outbreaks of COVID-19.
Among other challenges, Serna mentioned misconceptions or lack of knowledge about resources and benefits available to workers, such as Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and fears among workers that they might lose eligibility for assistance based on their wages.
Department spokesperson Stacy Johnston added that employers would be informed about a tax credit available to employers who hire from certain target groups such as people with felony convictions or who receive certain kinds of assistance.
Other strategies on the agenda to discuss will be flexible work schedules and telework opportunities, and the possibility of using on-site facilities for childcare or having a list of nearby facilities handy to assist their employees.
"Employers can actually become a resource for their workers, as opposed to hoping that workers can find these resources, overcome their barriers on their own and stay employed," Serna said.
He also described ongoing research into labor gaps in a marketplace where workers are more mobile, obtaining education and training to enter higher-paying fields or move on to workplaces with better accommodations.
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"There's a very competitive market out there for workers, and their ability to move from one employer to another to increase their earning ability is definitely something that we're looking at," he said.
The leisure and hospitality industries have led in job growth according to the state's most recent labor market report, accounting for 15.5 percent of new openings. That share was even greater in the Las Cruces metropolitan area, with 18.8 percent.
Serna said the state was studying which industries get left behind as workers make their moves, necessitating a "pipeline" to prepare workers to enter industries such as retail and fast food.
With more training for less experienced workers come cost and risk, Serna said, for which DWS pledged to assist employers.
The Jan. 27 event for employers would be followed, Serna added, by a regional hiring event to bring more New Mexicans back into the workforce.
To join the Las Cruces workshop
The workshop takes place at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 27, in the Las Cruces City Council Chambers at City Hall, 700 N. Main Street. Participation is free.
Registrants may sign up by contacting Peter Martinez at DWS via firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 575-524-6250.
For further information, the public may also call the city Economic Development Department at 575-541-2166.
This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: 'State of the Workforce' workshop to assist Las Cruces hiring