Nearly one in every 10 Lea County workers is unemployed.
According to numbers from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, Lea’s unemployment rate stands at 9.7 percent (unadjusted). Unadjusted numbers do not include seasonal jobs not yet tallied by the state.
It’s an unemployment rate the likes of which Lea County hasn’t seen since 1999 when the rate climbed as high as 11.1 percent and stayed at or above 10 percent for five months of the year. The average unemployment rate in 1999 was 9.2 percent.
While the state has changed how it computes unemployment, making a comparison of 1999 to today difficult, but a look at recent numbers show how far Lea’s oil and gas industry has fallen in the past year and a half — with the county losing some 22 percent of its oil and gas extractive jobs.
According to the state’s numbers, Lea County reached its largest workforce in 2014 with an estimated 30,544 available workers and some 29,189 of them employed. Since then Lea’s workforce has fallen by 1,566 workers and the number of employed has fallen by 3,026 to just 26,163 employed workers.
Conversely, the number of unemployed workers actively seeking work has more than doubled from 1,355 in 2014 to 2,815 as of June. That figure does not include employable workers not seeking work, so the number of unemployed could be higher.
Whether that is the case is unclear as new and continued unemployment claims data could not be obtained from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions as of press time. However, the state website estimates there are 1,787 jobs openings in Lea County.
However, some of those not seeking work could be in the 1,566 workers that have left the workforce in the past two years.
Lea County has lost some 715 jobs since June 2015 and many of those may be attributed to the shuttering of Baker Hughes and Halliburton, both of which shut down their local shops and moved staff to offices in Texas.
Since 2015, Lea County has lost an estimated 522 oil and gas mining jobs. Based on the most recent numbers which date to last quarter 2015, since 2014 the county’s number of oil and gas mining jobs have fallen from 8,836 to 6,829, a 22 percent drop. The department reports mining jobs declined by 5,900 jobs statewide in June alone.
Staffing companies in Lea County said oilfield jobs have been lost in “waves” since December 2014.
“It was really bad, really bad,” said Bretlye Lucas, manager of Elwood Staffing. “We’ve been losing jobs for about a year and a half. Once (oil) went down in December 2014, by February it was done and they have been laying people off in rounds ever since. This is the lowest of the low I’ve seen the oilfield go in the 15 years I’ve been here.”
Noticeably, Lea has faired worse than neighboring county Eddy, which currently has an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent and which saw its oil and gas jobs decline by only 577 jobs, or 8 percent from 7,275 jobs in 2014 to 6,698 jobs at the end of 2015.
This difference between Lea’s and Eddy’s numbers may be due to Lea’s proximity to Texas, with oil companies moving Lea workers to Texas but keeping offices in Eddy County because of the long commute from the Midland/Odessa area to active fields south of Carlsbad in Eddy County.
One barometer for Lea’s oilfield is the New Mexico Junior College Department of Workforce Solutions, which provides training for oilfield jobs.
Jeff McCool, vice president of Training and Outreach, said demand for the department’s services follows the flow of the oilfield economy.
“We tend to go the way of the economy,” he said. “Our numbers have tended to go down as unemployment has gone up. In order for people to train they have to have money.”
As such, demand for services are down at the department, but not out, according to Steve Sauceda, director of workforce training.
“I would say we are steady,” he said. “If you want to compare to last year, then yes the numbers are down, but we are staying consistent with the CDL training.”
He said the size of most classes have been cut in half in the last year because of the downturn.
The question remains; when will the oilfield turn around? There are rumblings it could be starting even though oil has once again dipped back to $40 a barrel after reaching $50 in late May.
The Permian Basin Petroleum Association reported Friday that Texas added 15 active rigs in the past week and New Mexico added four (its largets gain since July 2015). For the Permian Basin, the rig count was up for the sixth straight week.
Lucas said her staffing company is finally seeing signs of life as well after months of inactivity.
“I am starting to see a slight pickup,” she said. “My pickup has been in the general labor sector — that is not a full-time permanent job — but that is me being able to keep guys busy going here and there. This is the first time I’ve been able to do that in nearly a year and a half. We are seeing a little pick-up in construction and a little in the oilfield. Hopefully, that continues to grow, whether it will or not is unclear. The oilfield will come back, but when?”
Levi Hill can be reached at 391-5438 or by email.
Lea County Unemployment by yearly average
Year Labor Force Employed Unemployed Rate
2011 27,297 25,774 1,523 5.6%
2012 28,403 27,063 1,340 4.7%
2013 29,329 28,013 1,316 4.5%
2014 30,544 29,189 1,355 4.4%
2015 29,428 27,601 1,827 6.2%
June 2016* 28,978 26,163 2,815 9.7%
*June numbers are not a yearly average for 2016
Lea Vs. Eddy oilfield jobs (mining, trucking and warehousing)
2014 2015* Percent change
Lea 10,685 8,519 22 percent
Eddy 8,512 7,881 7 percent