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New Mexico’s economic recovery from the pandemic is wholly dependent on how well we can build an “ecosystem of opportunity” between New Mexicans looking for work and our businesses and employers who desperately need them.
The Workforce Connections system plays a pivotal role in the ecosystem, receiving upwards of $20 million in federal funds each year to help job seekers access education, training and employment, and help employers get the skilled-and-ready workforce they need now and for the future.
Long before Covid hit, our state had lagged the country in outcomes for these investments, ranking in the bottom third of states and last in our region for workforce, according to a publication for site selectors. In 2019, the currently configured system served only one in 10 New Mexico employers and 4,500 job seekers. Going into this year, the best-case scenario is 5,600 job seekers for the 2021-2022 program year, if the boards met all of their metrics, which historically they don’t. To put this in perspective, there are more than 68,500 New Mexicans currently receiving unemployment benefits.
As currently configured, three of the state’s four workforce boards were consistently failing to achieve many, if not most, of their goals. In fact, the Southwestern Area Workforce Development Board (which covers Doña Ana County) is the lowest performing region in the state, despite receiving the second largest amount of money. Going into this new program year, its best-case participant scenario is to serve 7 percent of the current 9,700 people unemployed in the region.
To create the conditions for optimizing the workforce system and achieve two to three times the outcomes for these investments (like other states do), the New Mexico State Workforce Board approved and submitted a formal recommendation to Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham to move from the existing four-region system, established two decades ago, to a two-region system devoted to meeting the unique needs of our diverse state.
There’s two ways to approach this. The top recommendation is to focus specifically on the unique needs of the Rio Grande Corridor (Santa Fe to Las Cruces) with one region and the more rural/frontier parts of the state with a second.
These larger metropolitan areas and their surrounding counties have commonality in industry sectors and delivery and access to services, setting the stage for increasing alignment of these dollars toward economic development targets – rendering the best return on investment for the job seeker, the business and the taxpayer. The second region would be solely focused on workforce investments aligned to building the regional economies of rural communities – including expanding entrepreneurship to build back businesses and create new jobs that may have been lost in the pandemic.
Or … a second scenario that’s been explored cuts the state in half and structures those two regions to serve the needs of communities with intentional investments based on characteristics like key industry sectors, commuting patterns, location of higher education institutions, etc. With the needs of the urban and rural communities being so different, the leadership of these regions would need to become far more innovative in developing and deploying new and more effective approaches to meeting the needs of their diverse communities.
Over the next three to four months, the Department of Workforce Solutions and the State Workforce Board will be hosting eight community meetings across the state to gather input from key stakeholders in building a robust workforce system: businesses; chambers of commerce; economic developers; those who’ve been or are now job seekers needing the system; elected officials; and current workforce board members. A meeting is currently being planned for Las Cruces in September.
For Las Cruces and Doña Ana County, the workforce system working hand-in-hand with economic development is a game-changer.
Investments in growing people’s skills and credentials for employers in our critical industries – like healthcare, aerospace, value-added agriculture and international trade – will ensure the backbone of our “ecosystem of opportunity” is strong for years to come.
Tracey Bryan is president/CEO of The Bridge of Southern New Mexico. She can be reached at TraceyBryan@thebridgeofsnm.org.