What is happening to the New Mexico economy is a complicated story, but the central plot of that tale is revealed in two figures. In 2005, 871,248 New Mexicans had jobs. In January of this year, however, only 855,781 men and women were at work in the state. Pessimists used to talk of a lost decade. Now optimists hope that we will only lose two decades before we recover our footing.
Almost as troubling as the gross numbers is what they reveal about the way the economic hard times are remaking New Mexican society.
The most recent Labor Market Review of the state Department of Workforce Solutions, whose 32 dense pages of data, graphs and charts were released Monday afternoon, hints at several of these trends:
•A shift of most jobs from rural areas and small towns to the Albuquerque-Santa Fe area.
• The movement of thousands of jobs from mining, manufacturing and related fields to health care for the elderly.
• A related migration of jobs from well paid, semi-skilled predominantly male occupations to worse-paid, marginally skilled and predominantly female jobs.
• Revised figures showing New Mexico did even worse last year than anyone knew.
• Unemployment in New Mexico for months among the worst in the nation—the fourth highest in January.
• Loss of jobs over the previous 12 months also remaining among the worst in the U.S.—the third highest in January.
• If it weren’t for new jobs caring for the elderly, mostly paid for by Obamacare and federal Medicare and Medicaid dollars, the loss of jobs would have been twice as great.
One result of these trends is that more people are now moving out of the state than moving in. One study suggests that the people we are losing are largely the young and well educated, precisely those the state most desperately needs to build a new economy on the ruins of the old one.
That old economy stood on three legs: mining, primarily oil and gas but also notably molybdenum, coal and copper as well as potash and carbon dioxide; four military bases in the state plus Fort Bliss, Texas, which encompasses much New Mexico land and a lot of New Mexican soldiers and workers; and the two national labs with their 20,000 highly paid scientists, engineers and technicians as well as hundreds of subcontractors supplying everything from lawn mowing to glass blowing.
All three legs are in danger of collapsing if they have not already done so.
Molybdenum and copper are history and coal soon will be, taking big bites out of the economy of the state’s north, northeast and northwest. Meanwhile, oil and gas have tanked, destroying the economy of the southeast and rest of the northwest, and nobody knows when they will recover.
Meanwhile the Pentagon is being forced to plan for draconian cuts in manpower, and wants to close more bases if Congress will let it. Our military bases face, at best, a tenuous existence; they clearly are not a growth industry.
And Los Alamos and Sandia national labs, which have failed to diversify much beyond their core mission of nuclear weapons, are struggling to survive a Cold War that ended 27 year ago. I cannot imagine parents urging their bright young children today to go into the bomb-building business.
What’s left? Tourism. It has been depressed for years, although there are scattered signs that it has just begun to revive. Good snow has blessed the ski resorts in Santa Fe and elsewhere, and the Albuquerque airport is handling more passengers. But tourist jobs are primarily waiting on tables and cleaning hotel rooms.
Of course there is health care, which is indeed booming. The University of New Mexico wants to build a brand new hospital in Albuquerque, and Presbyterian is planning a new hospital in Santa Fe.
There are a lot of good jobs in health care for doctors and technicians and registered nurses, but alas a lot more jobs for marginally trained workers to help the ailing and dying elderly.
There is, of course, a way out of the economic morass. Almost everybody agrees on what it is—training a highly skilled workforce for new jobs in the age of IT and biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Unfortunately, the sector in New Mexico that has seen the worst budget cuts over the past decade is higher education. Not only research universities but colleges and community colleges have been forced to reduce faculty, eliminate courses and raise tuition—and do it all year after year, with no end in sight.
Our leaders seem to be living in some imaginary world in which education is a luxury we can do without rather than the pure essence of survival as we enter our second lost decade.