Knocking down barriers to employment
New Mexico continues to have a jobs problem. I know this because I facilitate community dialogues and strategy planning sessions for local economy programs and projects all over the U.S. and New Mexico, in rural and urban communities.
During a recent session with Environmental Education Association of New Mexico (an organization that dedicates itself to serving the whole student in K-12 environmental education), a community member and expert educator pointed out that if we got rid of college degree requirements on most job applications and instead hired by skills, expertise and real world experience, more New Mexicans would be employed in good-paying skilled jobs. This struck me as not only an environmental education opportunity to expand our economic opportunities in New Mexico, but an idea that could make us a leader in the country in putting people to work.
Our state is at the bottom of every list for employment opportunities and at the top of lists for unemployment rates. Yet many companies (big, small, corporate, local) complain that there are not enough skilled or educated workers in our state. We need to fix this.
Here are some ideas:
• By removing degree requirements from job applications, the pool of applicants with qualifying skills and life experience would increase.
• For many New Mexicans, going to college is not the best of use of time or money or resources. We emphasize a college education as a path to good employment, yet there are many who don’t thrive in a college environment.
• Access to good jobs is an equity issue. In our state, about one-third of our students live at or below the poverty line and about two-thirds qualify for reduced or free lunch. What if our students were prepared to enter the workforce after completing a stellar K-12 education without having the financial burden of going to college? Even with the lottery scholarship, there are huge costs in attending school, such as books, fees, room and board, etc.
• Here’s a radical idea: What if our community colleges worked on accreditation for skills already learned on farms or in real-life application (mechanical, construction, the trades, etc.)? What if someone whose family was tied to the land — who learned about the richness of the soil on their property and could name every mineral in the ground and could teach you how to manage land and water usage, but who never had a formal degree in any of those subjects — could be certified as an expert in a field they learned through life, community, family and love of the land passed down through generations of knowledge? Shouldn’t our rich traditional cultures be an asset, not a burden?
• Could our state lead in employing people who are knowledgeable yet lack the education listed on a job application? There are many educational organizations and associations working toward more holistic education requirements but those requirements should extend to employers seeking applicants.
The Albuquerque-based nonprofit organization Mission: Graduate has developed The Graduate Profile, which addresses the question: What are the knowledge, skills and attitudes a high school graduate needs to succeed in college, career and life? Their profile informs us — community members, teachers, parents, nonprofit service providers, employers — what tools and support systems students need for success not only in college but in life. It is also a great tool for prospective employers to use in creating job descriptions and interview questions.
New Mexico is a smart state. Let’s make it smarter — and a leader — by lifting up better ways to support students and knocking down barriers to employment.
Vicki Pozzebon has lived and worked in New Mexico for 14 years and is the owner of Prospera Partners, a consulting firm that designs local economy networks and social enterprise developmental plans for businesses, organizations and government agencies that put our communities first.