SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – It may come as no surprise to some that New Mexico’s unemployment rate is relatively high compared to much of the rest of the country. U.S. Bureau of Labor stats indicate the Land of Enchantment’s August seasonally adjusted unemployment was at 4.4%, among the top six in the nation.

But that’s just part of New Mexico’s labor story. A new state report highlights a lesser known issue: nearly a quarter of New Mexico’s population was of working age, but not employed, in 2021.

The assessment comes from the state’s budget-focused Legislative Finance Committee, assessing metrics surrounding the state’s labor department, Workforce Solutions. Earlier this year, that department reported some dramatic findings: New Mexico’s labor force participation rate has dropped 9% between 1999 and 2021 for men between ages 25 and 34. Now the Legislative Finance Committee provides some more details about the issue.

“The state is in need of every worker it can get, especially teachers, nurses, social workers, and service industry workers,” the LFC wrote in the new Workforce Solutions “report card.” “Improving participation in the labor force is a key strategic goal for the state to recover from the pandemic, meet long-term needs, and address labor shortages.”

Among men, women, and elderly workers, New Mexico’s labor force participation was tens of thousands of workers short of the national average, according to the LFC’s analysis of data from New Mexico’s Workforce Solutions Department, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the U.S. Census. In total, the LFC counts an estimated 486,000 New Mexicans who are of working age, but were not employed in 2021. That’s nearly-one quarter of the state’s entire population.

So why does that matter? According to the LFC, low labor rates don’t just affect businesses, they affect the entire state’s economy. “Low labor force participation rates cause rising dependency ratios because fewer workers are available to support those who do not work, higher tax rates because of a shrinking base, and slower economic growth because fewer people are working,” the LFC says in its report card.

There are several potential reasons why many New Mexicans weren’t working. For example, LFC points out that some working-aged adults left New Mexico and others have aged out of the workforce.

In addition, more people have been receiving disability in New Mexico. In 1999, about 31,000 New Mexicans were receiving disability, according to the LFC. In 2021, the number was nearly double, at around 61,300 people on disability.

To try to get more New Mexicans into good jobs, the state offers several programs, such as in-person résumé help at the state’s employment focused “Connection Offices.” But those programs may not be working as effectively as the state hopes for.

In fiscal year 2022, only about half of the people who received employment help in one of the state’s Workforce Connection Offices actually ended up employed, according to the LFC. That’s short of the state’s 60% goal.

“There is no shortage of funding for training future workers but a plan and further coordination between the entities is needed to spend funding strategically,” the report states. The state also notes that in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2022, about 12,600 individuals received employment services at a Workforce Solutions “Connections” office, roughly half of the states target.

The number of people trying to find jobs has also seemingly fallen. From July 2020 to July 2021, nearly 300,000 people went onto the state’s Job Seeker website. From July 2021 to July 2022, only 106,659 went on the site. That’s a 63% decline in the number of people looking for jobs.