A Changing Workforce

Chapter advisors

Many thanks to the advisors for this section: Leslie Cervantes, New Mexico State University; Ricardo Gonzales, El Paso Electric; Bob Grassberger, retired University of New Mexico; Abby Lewis, Office of U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman; Peter Winograd, retired UNM Center for Education Policy Research.

High unemployment, low job creation, high poverty, shrinking population and poor education. These markers comprise what could be called the “Forbidden Five” for any state seeking to build a strong workforce. New Mexico is battling all of them. As a result, the state has difficulty attracting new business, keeping its educated youth, and – some say – generally creating a climate conducive to economic vitality.

Boiled down, part of the challenge looks like the proverbial chicken and egg: Economic development experts report that some companies may be hesitant to come to New Mexico for fear they cannot find qualified employees, and businesses already here struggle to find good employees. Simultaneously, many employable, educated individuals leave the state for higher wage jobs elsewhere.[1] In addition, many “hard to employ” people live in New Mexico, struggling to make ends meet for their families.

Industry experts and national studies overwhelmingly point to education of the population as crucial not only to the development and sustainability of a successful economy, but also to the ability of residents to move up the ladder financially.

Unemployment and Poverty

As noted in the previous section, a fifth of New Mexico’s population lives in poverty (as measured by the Federal Poverty Level), ranking the state the second worst in the nation.[2] That number reflects the percentage of people in the state whose incomes fell below the poverty line (for example, $23,834 for a family of four). Research shows that 42 percent of young people born to families in the lowest fifth of income distribution will remain there. For these young people, educational attainment beyond the high school diploma may offer the only means of moving up the economic ladder.[3]

“If students perceive a lower benefit to remaining in school, then they may choose to drop out, even if they aren’t struggling academically,” noted Ruth Willliams of Elev8 New Mexico. “Initiatives that bolster low-income students’ perceptions of what they can achieve in life can make a difference in high school graduation rates and overcoming the despair that comes from being at the bottom of the ladder and facing the large gaps to get to the middle rung.”

Since higher levels of educational attainment typically correspond to higher incomes, there is a direct correlation with increased economic activity of individuals and businesses. This is why the educational attainment of a population is a common starting point in evaluating the workforce’s capacity to contribute to economic growth.[4]

As of 2015, New Mexico had a less-educated populace than the surrounding states and the nation, and change for the better is not expected in the near future. [5] Analyses of educational pipeline data suggest that at least half of New Mexico students will not earn a college credential or degree by their mid-twenties. [6]

If that prediction plays out, New Mexico will continue to lag in its ability to compete. Labor market economists project that by 2020, about two-thirds of all jobs (65 percent nationally and 63 percent in New Mexico by one estimate) will require some postsecondary education — meaning an advanced industry credential or a postsecondary certificate, credential, or degree at the associate level or higher.[7]

These data do not bode well for New Mexico’s unemployment rate, which increased more sharply than the national average during the 2007-2010 recession and was the highest in the nation at 7 percent in December 2015 and January 2016.[8] In fact, New Mexico remains among 10 states that have failed to regain all jobs lost in the recession.[9] Compared to a year ago February, the state saw zero job growth. As for numbers, there are over 9,500 fewer people in the New Mexico labor force than in 2009.[10]

It is not difficult to see why. In the last several years, employment in lower-skilled occupations dropped considerably. The construction and manufacturing sectors declined during the national recession and never fully recovered. Discretionary consumer spending fell, so leisure and hospitality employment dropped.[11] And New Mexico’s oil and gas industry experienced significantly falling prices (from $92 a barrel in 2013 to $44 in 2015).[12] An estimated 6,000 people in New Mexico’s Permian Basin in the southeast and the San Juan Basin in the northwest lost their jobs as of fall 2015.[13]

It is also worth noting that unemployment varies greatly by region in the state. For example, Los Alamos and Eddy Counties have the lowest unemployment rates (five percent or less) while Luna and McKinley have the highest (14 percent and 11 percent).[14] Targeted job creation or movement of job seekers between counties are possible strategies for increasing employment.[15]

Changing Workforce, Changing Needs

Across the nation, educational requirements are becoming more stringent as jobs that demand physical skills decline and those requiring cognitive skills rise, largely because of the advancement of technology.[16] Increased efficiencies in automation and software decrease the need for some employees.[17] Automation may also contribute to income distribution challenges, with increasing numbers of ‘blue collar’ or industrial workers displaced. However, some experts forecast that the digital age will not ultimately result in fewer jobs; jobs may simply require different skill sets than were previously required.[18]

As the nature of jobs change, so will the demographics to fill those positions. For the first time in U.S. history, five generations will be working side-by-side, [19] and this poses unique challenges for both employers and employees in multiple areas – from communication styles to what is considered appropriate workplace attire.

It is predicted that 31 million jobs will be available nationwide in 2020 due to baby boomer retirements, contributing to a shortfall of five million workers with postsecondary education and training.[20] Between 2008 and 2018, New Mexico will create as estimated 292,000 job vacancies both from new jobs and from job openings due to retirement,[21] even though older people are staying in the workforce longer.

The New Mexico Department of Workforce Solution's (DWS’s) projections for 2022 indicate the largest percentages of growth in: personal care and service; education, training and library; healthcare support; and food preparation and service-related positions.[22] The DWS report demonstrates that one of the most consistent themes is that New Mexico's projected workforce is likely to be similar to the existing workforce in terms of educational qualifications and salaries. (More details on industry job projections appear in Appendix C of this report.)

The projection data raise three critical variables. How do we help prepare New Mexicans for:

  • Jobs that will likely be available
  • High-paying careers that we want to come to the state
  • Careers and occupations that we have yet to imagine


"When I hire, I want someone who knows how to learn, and how to learn on their own. Millennials tend to be great at that..." - Brian Rashap, Intel

Simultaneously, millennials (people born between 1980 and 1995) are becoming a force in the economy, making up 25 percent of the population today. Seventy-five million millennials have either joined or are preparing to join the national workforce.[23] Depending on who you ask, the surge presents either cause for concern or an exciting opportunity.

Some people in older generations have criticized millennials for being self-absorbed, less productive, or generally difficult to work with; the media have run with the stereotype.[24] But millennials, educators and some employers – often in tech fields – decry the labeling. They point, instead, to positive traits in younger generations that have never lived in a world without Internet.

It may be true that millennials tend to work differently than previous generations.[25] If an entire generation must be characterized, this one is often described as: valuing life outside of work more than previous generations; seeking jobs they are passionate about as opposed to jobs that pay the bills; and preferring to work in a relaxed work environment. They also are electronically literate, having never known a world without computers, cell phones and the Internet, and they welcome new ideas and challenges.[26]

Given their predilection toward technology and group activities, it should come as no surprise that some millennials also learn differently. They prefer “gamified” assignments and on-demand instruction, as well as opportunities to work in teams on hands-on projects as opposed to receiving traditional classroom-textbook instruction.[27]

“When I hire, I want someone who knows how to learn, and how to learn on their own,” commented Intel executive Brian Rashap when interviewed for this report. “Millennials tend to be great at that, especially if we’ve made on-demand training available in small, as-needed chunks.” [28]

Bottom line: Whether stereotyped or misunderstood, millennials (and the ‘Gen Z’ up-and-comers) are the future workforce, and changes in education may need to be made to accommodate our evolving workers’ styles and the types of jobs that will be available to them.

Improving the State’s Educational Attainment

Of greater concern than generational differences for educators and employers is state data on educational attainment. As noted previously, most New Mexicans will not earn a college credential or degree by their mid-twenties.[29] This data source begins tracking students at ninth grade. (Of interest, passing Algebra I is critical to ensuring that a student graduates from high school. Students who pass Algebra I by the end of ninth grade have a substantially greater chance of graduating from high school on-time and continuing on to higher education.[30])

The fact that many high schools and community colleges operate without explicit collaboration structures may contribute to the problem.[31] The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a national education policy organization, writes that New Mexico needs to create a system of career guidance that transforms schools – as early as high school – into career-preparatory cultures.

Arrowhead Park Programs

Arrowhead Park Early College High School (ECHS) in Las Cruces is doing just that.The school continues to successfully bridge high school to college, and college to career advancement for its 400 New Mexico students, many of whom are first generation college graduates.[32]

Established in 2010, ECHS experiences almost 100 percent graduation rates with 83 percent of its first graduation class earning an associate’s degree, and 50 percent of students earning two or three degrees.[33]The school curriculum includes pathways in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and entrepreneurship. A related program, Arrowhead Park Medical Academy, opened in 2014 to create a career pipeline for students to become healthcare professionals.

Business and education leaders in Albuquerque have said New Mexico’s mindset of hopelessness must shift if our young people are going to be motivated to see the value not only in education but also in themselves.[34] In fact, hope has been shown to be a better predictor of student success than SAT or ACT scores, or GPA.[35]

The Future of STEM Jobs

About 20 percent of all American jobs are now in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, with half of those open to workers who don't have a four-year college degree, according to a new analysis by the Brookings Institution. In fact, STEM knowledge offers attractive wage and job opportunities to many workers with a post-secondary certificate or associate's degree.[36] An estimated 80 percent of all jobs in the next decade will require STEM skills, and most of those positions will need some level of postsecondary education and training.[37]

Significant attention has been devoted in recent years to increasing the number of college graduates with STEM degrees, and there has been steady progress in New Mexico.[38] However, concerns exist that the number of retiring STEM professionals outpaces the number of new graduates. [39] Post-secondary courses that align education with STEM job openings will be critical to keeping up with changing workforce needs.

Innovations in Higher Education

Four-year degrees are not required for many jobs within the exploding digital and technical industries. Often, competency-based education, such as STEM and coding programs that target occupationally specific needs, is sufficient. Certificates awarded as a result of completion of industry-specific coursework combined with proof of skills obtained through previous employment are becoming increasingly valued, if not essential, to creation of a strong and versatile labor pool.[40]

Some industry advocates want educational institutions and programs to become even more adept at tying curriculum and program development to the needs of local business. Doing so, they say, creates a better prepared workforce and increases the likelihood that employers can hire from that pool.[41] However, this line of thinking is not universal among higher education faculty. Some educators are concerned that too much focus on professional training can lead to a narrow education that leaves students without critical thinking skills and the ability to solve complex problems.[42]

Ideally, we do both. However, that’s easier said than done. Notes one Georgetown workforce report, “The move toward making people both college and career ready essentially amounts to finding ways to learn basic knowledge, and transforming these capabilities into deeper learning in order to create a flexible and adaptable individual with the appropriate skills to survive in the twenty-first century.”[43]

Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) has been known for responding well to the state’s needs, but more recently, administrators have focused on proactive creation of career pathways and anticipating a labor pool composition that will attract business to New Mexico. [44]

For example, New Mexico’s microbrewery industry is booming, with Albuquerque quickly becoming a destination for beer makers. So this year, CNM is opening its Brewing Academy as part of its culinary arts program. Students completing the academy will earn a brewing technology certificate. While the immediate goal is education, the longer-term vision is one of economic development: to help create a pool of entry-level brewer technicians, attracting out-of-state brewers and leading New Mexico to become a mecca for the industry. It’s not necessarily that CNM is keenly interested in beer; it’s more that the college is interested in brewing as an industry for economic growth.[45]

Similar examples include a Deep Dive Coding Bootcamp to train web developers and a Cybersecurity Academy. Cybersecurity may be an area with particular potential for diversification, given our state’s assets such as the national labs and the Air Force Research Laboratory. The international technology company Cisco estimates there are over a million unfilled cybersecurity jobs worldwide, and the need is growing. [46]

There is also a growing emphasis on teaching workforce readiness skills, also known as soft skills, such as phone etiquette, customer service and reliability. Social traits, too, such as empathy, adaptability, cultural awareness and curiosity are increasingly important to job success and sought by employers. [47]

All of these types of targeted training may be particularly promising for New Mexico’s unemployed or “hard-to-employ” people. Concrete, hirable skills can make a huge difference for men and women trying to move out of poverty.

Workforce Information Sharing

To better align career opportunities with course offerings, community colleges have for the last three to five years strengthened their commitment to working more closely with the state Department of Workforce Solutions. Information-sharing has been more integrated, especially in identifying job availability and the training needed to fill those positions.[48]

Though progress has been made, some people recommend that information and data-sharing between Workforce Solutions and the entire higher education system (as opposed to specific campuses) needs to improve to better deliver workforce development services, particularly to low-wage workers and the unemployed. [49]

The Southern Regional Education Board agrees, calling for increased collaboration between the New Mexico Legislature, Public Education Department, Higher Education Department, Department of Workforce Solutions, as well as individual school employees, district leaders, industry partners and community members.[50]

In the meantime, innovations to increase workforce training awareness, affordability and accessibility among those populations is largely created in silos, with educational institutions and city and state governments devising their own programs.

Improving Education Awareness and Access

There exist different challenges for engaging people in higher education if they are older, working full-time or have families. Helping full-time low-wage workers to more conveniently receive an education while they are employed would not only aid in poverty reduction but would also help raise the level of educational attainment by the state’s workforce as a whole. A broader range of opportunities – both educational and financial – could make a difference for people who have children, are in financial distress, work multiple jobs, and/or are caretakers for family. [51]

Innovations to Help Low-Wage Workers

To that end, New Mexico schools have devised financial and programmatic initiatives to increase and improve education opportunities for low-wage workers and financially at-risk students.

  • The Rust Opportunity Grant, an endowment at CNM, is specifically designed for those students at risk of dropping out in case of a financial crisis. An unexpected medical bill or a broken vehicle are common examples of crises that force low-income students out of the classroom.
  • To broaden STEM education access, CNM has partnered with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to provide “access funds” for lower income and underserved groups. The funds help them to attend the college’s coding boot camp and cybersecurity course.
  • Clovis Community College offers an array of scholarships, grouped under its AcademicWorks website. Students may apply for multiple types of support though a one-stop shop application process, including financial support specific to needed fields like nursing or welding.
  • Several universities now offer “one-stop” application processes for scholarship applications.

On a related note, increasing numbers of New Mexico employers use the WorkKeys testing system to assess applicants’ abilities to perform real-world workplace skills needed across most jobs. WorkKeys measures common workplace skills like reading for information, locating information, workplace observation and listening for understanding. Students without a college degree or who did not follow a traditional career path may use this test to demonstrate their ability to do a job – even if their educational background is limited or does not match the job description.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, State Plan [52]

New Mexico’s Workforce Development Plan, which was scheduled to be submitted to the federal government in April 2016, attempts to integrate workforce development tightly with economic development. The plan is required to focus on people with barriers to employment. These people include recipients of public assistance, other low-income individuals and people who are basic-skills deficient.

New Mexico’s plan promotes employability, more efficient use of funding by eliminating redundancies, and improved alignment of services. There is a network of regional boards that tracks progress and determines how to deliver services and job training that are right for their respective communities.

Training and services are delivered via the Workforce Connections (aka One-Stops) in 21 cities throughout the state. The One-Stops are designed so that those seeking services need only travel to one location.

Other efforts that might be considered to support a healthy workforce include[53]:

  • Connecting parents to work, including equipping low-income parents with demand-driven hard and soft skills and credentials that lead to quality employment.
  • Building bridges to advancement through efforts that move low-income parents into family-sustaining employment (above the Federal Poverty Level) in high-growth, high-wage sectors.
  • Providing integrated services and access to work and income supports that lead to greater employment stability and income growth.
  • Taking action to disrupt discriminatory hiring and pay practices through support for research, civic engagement, advocacy and media.
  • Examining policies and strategies to improve the quality of jobs, including living wages, paid sick/medical leave and predictable scheduling.

Albuquerque has made significant strides through passage of the Pay Equality Ordinance in 2015. As a result of it, 24 companies are offering equal pay to the men and women they employ. Another positive effort is the New Mexico Family Friendly Business Award, which recognizes businesses offering family-friendly employee benefits.

Options and Intersections

Given information presented in this chapter, there are excellent options for future policy discussions. How can we address, in an integrated way, the five big challenges of high unemployment, low job creation, high poverty, shrinking population and poor education? What steps can we take to address the challenges and opportunities of millennials in the workplace? How can we improve integration between the many government agencies and education entities that affect our state’s workforce? How can we expand efforts to reengage the unemployed and hard-to-employ in the workplace and the state’s overall economy? How can we leverage existing efforts, such as the state workforce innovation plan?

These questions are also influenced by other sections in this report. Clearly, opportunities to break cycles of poverty lead to greater appreciation for higher education, and vice versa. (Ch. 1) Efforts to grow the state’s business sector – whether through entrepreneurship, small business expansion, or large industry diversification – all require a highly prepared workforce. (Ch. 3 & 4) The same is true for growth in rural and tribal communities. (Ch. 5)

Chapter Endnotes

Short reference sources below; complete citations in the bibliography.

[1] (Springer 2015)
[2] (Center for American Progress 2015)
[3] (Southern Regional Education Board 2015)
[4] (Leach 2016)
[5] (New Mexico Legislative Jobs Council December 2015)
[6] (Southern Regional Education Board 2015)
[7] (Southern Regional Education Board 2015)
[8] (Albuquerque Journal 2016)
[9] (Albuquerque Journal 2016)
[10] (New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions Economic Research and Analysis Bureau 2015)
[11] (Quigley 2016)
[12] (U.S. Energy Information Administration 2016)
[13] (Albuquerque Journal 2016)
[14] (New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions Economic Research and Analysis Bureau 2015)
[15] (New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions Economic Research and Analysis Bureau 2015)
[16] (Georgetown University 2013)
[17] (Grassberger 2016)
[18] (Winograd 2016)
[19] (Grassberger 2016)
[20] (Georgetown University 2013)
[21] (Georgetown University 2016)
[22] (New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions 2016, 15)
[23] (Patel 2015)
[24] (Meister 2013)
[25] (Albuquerque Business First 2016)
[26] (Albuquerque Business First 2016)
[27] (Patel 2015)
[28] (Rashap 2016)
[29] (New Mexico Legislative Jobs Council December 2015)
[30] (National Center for Educational Statistics 2010) (New Mexico Jobs Council 2014)
[31] (New Mexico Legislative Jobs Council December 2015, 93)
[32] (NM State University 2015)
[33] (The Bridge of Southern New Mexico 2015), (Amis 2013)
[34] (Albuquerque Business First 2016)
[35] (Schoeniger 2015)
[36] (Koebler 2010)
[37] (Georgetown University 2016), (American Council on Education 2010)
[38] (NM Higher Education Department 2014)
[39] (Georgetown University 2016)
[40] (Winograd 2016)
[41] (Mierzwa 2016)
[42] (Keeling 2012)
[43] (Georgetown University 2013)
[44] (Winograd 2016)
[45] (Staley 2014)
[46] (Cisco 2015)
[47] (Grassberger 2016)
[48] (Winograd 2016)
[49] (Winograd 2016)
[50] (Southern Regional Education Board 2015)
[51] (Winograd 2016)
[52] Section summary provided by Bob Grassberger, Ph.D.
[53] (Warren, W. K. Kellogg Foundation 2016)

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