FARMINGTON — With the COVID-19 pandemic fast approaching three years ago, San Juan County is still grappling with the fallout from the economic shutdown that accompanied the spread of the virus, according to a vice president of the San Juan College.
Lorenzo Reyes, vice president of workforce development at the college, says the county has made significant progress in combating the effects of the pandemic. But a lot of work remains to be done, he said, especially in terms of rebuilding the size of the civilian workforce.
“No, we haven’t 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 lower than the rate of 6.3 % that it displayed in February 2020, shortly before the start of the pandemic.
But Reyes called that number misleading, pointing to the fact that San Juan County’s labor force is 3,000 people lower 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 simply given up on finding a job.
“When you look at before the pandemic, there were more people in the labor field,” he said.
Reyes said the October unemployment figures also did not reflect the 60 layoffs recently announced by Westmoreland San Juan Mining LLC and the company’s plans to seal off the San Juan mine as part of a redevelopment plan. six-year state. The move will deal a double whammy to the local economy, he said.
“Local governments are going to suffer a loss of tax revenue,” he said. “But the impact on those people is going to be even greater, especially if those people end up leaving here.”
That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of jobs available in San Juan County — a situation Reyes has repeatedly noted over the past few months. According to 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 industrial sector. services.
The problem continues to be a lack of qualified candidates for these positions, he said, as well as an unwillingness on the part of many job seekers to fill much of the jobs that need to be filled. He also said it would be difficult for many of these laid-off miners — who earned very good wages by San Juan County standards — to find local work that pays them comparable wages.
A college degree isn’t necessary for many of these jobs in the region, Reyes said, but some type of certification is. These credential programs can often be completed in weeks or months, but Reyes said it’s difficult for someone working in the service industry to muster the time and resources to complete a program of this size. nature, especially if he has a family.
“One of the things I would like to see happen is for there to be an initiative at the state level through which many people who could benefit and take advantage of these openings could receive financial assistance. “, did he declare. “At the moment, they don’t have access to the training or the opportunity to receive the training.”
San Juan College and other state institutions offer many financial aid programs for people who enroll in degree programs, he said, but there are far fewer. assistance available for those enrolling in certificate programs. Unfortunately, these are often the people who need the most help, 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 these vacancies could be filled quickly if people are placed in a position where they can get the training they need without jeopardizing their financial situation.
“It’s not that there’s no interest (in these jobs), it’s that people don’t have the resources to cover it,” he said.
One segment of the labor market that has had a large number of openings for some time is law enforcement and corrections. San Juan County officials held numerous job fairs throughout the year in an effort to increase staffing at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center, and the County Sheriff’s Office. of San Juan announced Nov. 30 that it is rolling out a recruiting initiative that will include a $15,000 investment. hiring bonus for all new employees.
According to an agency press release, the sheriff’s office is 17% below its allocated staffing requirements.
“Law enforcement across the country is struggling to get qualified men and women to swear and serve,” Sheriff Shane Ferrari said in the news release, noting there has been a drop in number of people applying for deputy sheriff positions over the last few years. “Our local agencies are also feeling this pressure.”
Additional job opportunities are likely to arise in the coming years, thanks to the amount of public infrastructure investment Congress has made over the past two years, Reyes said.
“There will be a lot of new jobs building bridges, roads, water pipes and (internet) connectivity,” he said. “This is where we see the future.”
According to projections, Reyes said, a total of 113,000 such jobs are expected to be created across New Mexico over the next three to four years.
“That’s why the college is strengthening its program and opportunities here, because right now we don’t have enough qualified members of the workforce, and we don’t want to have to bring in workers from the workforce. out of town to do these jobs,” he said.
Reyes said it is 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 current employees, thus avoiding vacancies.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.