With New Mexico employers adjusting to what may be a more manageable strain of COVID-19, competition for hiring remains stiff.
And keeping employees happy is top of mind.
“Employers have to be creative about the way they structure their business models, both in understanding where they get their best return on investment … but also about how they retain their employees and keep them happy,” said Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce. “Businesses have to be flexible, whether it’s work schedules or remote work, or benefits packages.”
Experts and leaders of major employers say they’re trying to be more flexible and play to their strengths. Molly Ryckman, vice president of sales and marketing for Heritage Hotels and Resorts, agreed that the writing is on the wall: Employment options are growing, so treat your people well.
“I think it has made us really consider what that employee is looking for in employment, whether it is a flexible schedule, or increased wages, or just the ability to take time off when required,” she said. “I think it has made a lot of employers become definitely more flexible.”
As employers navigate that dynamic, Black said he also believes the current trend for New Mexico’s economy is inching toward improved confidence in being able to coexist with COVID-19, which is good news for the state’s businesses.
“I do think there is kind of a renewed feeling that we are going to be living with some level of this virus going forward,” he said. Knowing that the latest variant, omicron, appears to be milder for vaccinated people has given “people a feeling that there is more of a willingness to reengage.”
Here’s a look at what several major private and public employers in New Mexico have to say about the current hiring climate:
Heritage Hotels and Resorts
Heritage — which includes a number of prominent properties including Hotel Chaco, Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town and Hotel St. Francis in Santa Fe — has been hosting a series of hiring events to fill about 300 people at its 13 hotels.
Hotel leadership was optimistic about its hiring push. Ryckman said she believes the state’s outdoor offerings make it an attractive place to live.
“There is so much to do here recreationally. People can get out, they can hike, they can bike, they can be outdoors,” said Ryckman. “I think that was one of the great draws to New Mexico. People felt like they could be safer, and be in this great open space without lots of people.”
Heritage Hotels and Resorts is still about 30% from a full workforce, and currently open positions range from “higher-level managers, to housekeepers, to maintenance staff, to line cooks. It definitely runs the gamut,” Ryckman said.
In addition to its hotels, the company operates a real estate company, so its full employment roster includes about 2,000 positions, she said.
Sandia National Laboratories
Sandia National Laboratories, one of largest laboratories in the country, historically has had a strong brand recognition and successful recruitment in New Mexico. But with the pandemic-induced shift to virtual outreach, the lab’s hiring process has been slowed.
“I think what we have in New Mexico, and across the country, is ‘COVID fatique’ or ‘virtual event fatigue,’” said David Martinez, manager of recruiting for Sandia National Laboratories. “So you’ll get 100 to 200 students signed up. In the beginning (of COVID), we’d get 150 to 180 — 75% would show up to the virtual event. But as we have progressed through this pandemic, you may have the same number registered, but you may get half of those students (to) show up at the event.”
Martinez said it’s difficult to know the extent of the lab’s current workforce shortage because the flux of attrition and the ebb and flow of contract work constantly shifts the amount of workers being employed, and how many are needed.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “… In any given year we are really trying to manage backfilling attrition, and then also hiring to support areas of growth in our mission and future technology areas. It is a healthy combination of both.”
How the pandemic fits into employment adds another layer of variables, he said.
But, in terms of numbers, he said that in fiscal year 2019 — what Martinez called “a banner year” for recruitment — there were more than 2,000 new hires. In fiscal year 2021, there were 1,340 new hires.
The challenges of the pandemic “have been managed well by Sandia,” Martinez said. “Our leadership has been very much supportive of telecommuting” which has been incorporated into company culture to deal with the COVID-19 reality.
“We all know what that means. Children homeschooling, doing virtual school, parents having to work from home,” Martinez said. “And that flexibility to work from home for many Sandians has been a vital element, and I think it has kept many folks at Sandia because of that. That to me has been a differentiator.”
One sector poised to grow significantly amid the pandemic is the cannabis industry. Aided by a perfect storm of sorts — COVID-19-stressed adults lighting up more frequently and a law legalizing adult-use cannabis sales starting in April — one New Mexico dispensary is ready for a significant expansion.
“We are looking to hire many more individuals for all sorts of positions,” said Marissa Novel, chief marketing officer for Ultra Health, which operates a number of medical cannabis retailers across the state.
With about 130,000 clients now enrolled in Ultra Health’s medical cannabis program across the state, “that potential pool of consumers is going to double, triple even, practically overnight” when recreational cannabis sales begin, she said.
Ultra Health currently has 25 stores in about 20 New Mexico counties — with six dispensaries in Albuquerque and two in Santa Fe — and is in the process of constructing 10 more, Novel said.
“In terms of staffing, I think we could easily see an increase of 30%, maybe close to 50%, by the end of 2022. We have about 350 employees right now, and that is across 25 retail dispensaries.”
Albuquerque Public Schools
Albuquerque Public Schools, which is among the city’s top employers with 12,000 full-time positions, is currently looking to fill 787 vacancies, according to APS data. That includes 300 available jobs for teachers looking to join the current teaching staff of 6,500 now working at the district.
Filling those slots hasn’t been easy, said Monica Armenta, executive director of communications for APS.
“I’ve been with Albuquerque Public Schools for 17 years, and prior to that, I anchored local morning news for 23 years. In my experience, it has never been this competitive,” Armenta said.
But she said that the teacher shortage at the district is not entirely the result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The teacher shortage issue is nothing new, it has just been exacerbated by the pandemic,” she said. “It’s like anything, until you hit a crisis, people don’t necessarily pay attention.”
Also complicating APS recruitment, she said, is that a number of large companies have opened in the state and are offering attractive packages with a more robust set of benefits.
“For the very first time ever, you have Amazon, and you have Netflix, and Facebook,” she said. “So for the first time ever in this city and this state, you can get jobs that pay competitively with benefits, and you still have a very limited pool of employees to draw from.”