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State introduces hospitality training funds

Lisa Dunlap Photo A new state program wants to help employers pay the cost of training employees in the hospitality industry, which officials say is essential to rebuilding tourism in the state.

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New Mexico’s tourism industry continues to feel the reverberations of pandemic fears and the consequences of business restrictions, closures and labor disruptions, according to state data and officials.

A state program announced Monday wants to help resolve part of the issue by reimbursing employers who train new employees or promote employees in the hospitality industry, defined by federal and state agencies as arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food businesses.

According to information from the New Mexico Tourism Department, gross receipts from tourism-related businesses for the 18-month period of January 2020 to June 2021 were below 2019 levels for 12 months and above 2019 levels for only six months.

In 2021, after four months above 2019 levels, gross receipts dipped to about 18% below 2019 levels in May 2021 and about 7% below for June 2021.

Because tourism represents a significant source of state tax revenues — $1.5 billion in 2019 — New Mexico policymakers in the Department of Workforce Solutions and the Tourism Department have decided on an effort to rebuild the hospitality workforce.

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Chaves County has quite a few events, such as the Eastern New Mexico State Fair, that draw many out-of-town visitors. In announcing a new training reimbursement program, state officials have said that rebuilding the hospitality workforce is essential to the recovery of tourism in the state.

“While we have many reasons to be optimistic about the return of visitation to the state, New Mexico cannot realize complete economic recovery without building back capacity within the tourism workforce,” Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer said in an announcement about the hospitality training reimbursement program. “This partnership with the Department of Workforce Solutions will provide tourism-related employers with much-needed resources to fill priority positions and create career opportunities for staff members.”

Businesses located and operating in New Mexico and that meet other program criteria can begin applying now for reimbursement of as many as 16 weeks of wages, up to a maximum of $4,480.

Stacy Johnston, acting public information officer for the Workforce Solutions Department, said that determinations about eligibility will begin Dec. 20 and that funds would be made available as soon as 30 days after the state approves applications, if program requirements are met.

“That is currently probably the biggest challenge our industry is facing is getting their workforce back to pre-pandemic level,” said Kathy Komoll, chief executive officer of the New Mexico Hospitality Association based in Albuquerque. “Without rebuilding the workforce, we can’t fully open, we can’t fully offer services throughout the state.”

She said the association hopes the state’s pilot program will help the industry bring people in.

“The other thing we want to do is to show people that the hospitality business is an amazing career that — I’m not exaggerating — opens up the world to you. It literally opens up the world to you because you can work anywhere in the world in the hospitality industry.”

Komoll, who indicated that Chaves County businesses are among the association membership, said that she hears that some barriers for prospective employees include feeling comfortable given current health concerns with returning to work sites and finding child care.

Edie Stevens, a local hotel sales director and an officer with the Roswell Hotel Association, said she could not provide specifics but is aware that the employee shortage is felt here.

“I can tell you that all of us are hiring and needing staff,” she said.

She said that she sent the information about the training program to all association members.

According to Johnston and data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Chaves County had 158 businesses classified in the leisure and hospitality industry as of June 2021. The 2,999 people employed in the industry represented 14.5% of the total workforce in the county.

Chaves County is reporting 181 fewer jobs in the industry compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

“Based on this data, it looks like Chaves County is recovering better compared to the industry in other parts of the state,” Johnston said.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the Workforce Solutions website indicates that overall job growth in the industry from October 2020 to October 2021 was 11,400. Statewide, industry jobs now represent 11.1% of all state employment.

Of the four major metropolitan statistical areas in New Mexico for which data was provided, the Albuquerque MSA had the smallest percentage growth in the hospitality industry of 8.7%, which was 3,100 jobs. Las Cruces had the largest percentage growth with 15.7%, but that represented only 1,100 jobs.

Komoll said the industry has other plans for increasing hospitality employment.

She said industry members backed the submission of a funding request to the current special session of the New Mexico Legislature to expand the state’s ProStart training program, which works to prepare high school students for hospitality careers.

She said the request is for additional funding and to expand the curriculum of the program to include other hospitality fields besides restaurant and food service.

“If it doesn’t make it through the special session, we will introduce it again in January,” Komoll said.

The current session deals with congressional and state redistricting plans as well as allocations of $1.07 billion in federal relief funding to various state departments and agencies.

Information about the hospitality training reimbursement program is available at ready.nm.gov.

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.