New Mexico job market remains stagnant

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By Susan M. Bryan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal labor statistics show most states have seen positive job growth over the past year, but New Mexico and several others remain on the negative side of the curve when it comes to the job market.

There haven't been any sizable layoffs in the past year by big employers in New Mexico, but business leaders say small businesses — from plumbing contractors and car dealerships to real estate companies and architectural firms — have been forced to lay off handfuls of workers, and those numbers are adding up.

"It's like a duck nipping at our ankles. It's a little bit here and a little bit there and before you know it, it becomes a big number," said Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

One of those workers on New Mexico's unemployment rolls is Kathleen Cescolini, of Albuquerque, who has been without work for a year. Before being laid off along with 140 coworkers, she used to be an operator for a company that relayed telephone calls to hearing and speech impaired customers.

Cescolini went to two interviews Thursday and had three more scheduled Friday. She puts in about five applications a day.

"I've got skills. I've got computer skills, I've got communication skills. I just don't know what they're looking for," she said during a visit to the state unemployment office Thursday. "It's been hard. The stress level, the fear of being homeless. That's my worst fear."

The architectural firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini was forced last year to trim its employees by about 90. Founder Dale Dekker said the company had never experienced an economic layoff in more than two decades of doing business but last year came down to matching expenses with revenues.

"This was pretty traumatic for us," he said. "It also had a psychological effect in that we're hesitant to get in that position again of hiring more people because we're not confident that we can keep them."

Dekker and others hope things will improve, but they acknowledge it will take time and that some job losses may never be regained.

The recession is more insidious and subtle than people realize, Cole said. It has forced businesses to become leaner and stronger and that has affected everyone, she said.

"The recovery is very slow and job recovery is even slower," Cole said. "The types of cuts that businesses had to make are cuts that made them more productive, and because they're more productive, it's highly unlikely they'll hire more people and go back to inefficient ways."

According to the most recent labor statistics from New Mexico officials, several industries added jobs over the past 12 months, including the service and retail industries, leisure and hospitality, mining, manufacturing and transportation. But financial and business services, wholesale trading and construction continued to report job losses in January.

The construction industry was down 1,600 jobs over the year. However, that did mark an improvement over the 8,000 jobs lost during the preceding 12 months ending in January 2010.

Government employment totaled 2,400 fewer jobs than it did a year ago. State government reported a 2,000-job decline, while local government, the largest of three public-sector components, posted a loss of 1,300.

As workers retire and vacancies come up, many of those government positions simply aren't filled.

New Mexico's unemployment rate was 8.7 percent in January, up from 8.1 percent a year ago. The rate of over-the-year job growth was negative 0.4 percent, representing a loss of about 3,500 jobs.