Natasha Jones seen here with her son Treyson Castillo at her home in Farmington on Friday. Jones went through Job Corps and now works at McDonalds.
Natasha Jones seen here with her son Treyson Castillo at her home in Farmington on Friday. Jones went through Job Corps and now works at McDonalds. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)
FARMINGTON — Several local agencies that work to connect the unemployed with jobs are coming together to improve the employment situation in San Juan County.

New Mexico Job Corps and New Mexico Workforce Solutions, along with San Juan County Partnership and the Community Health Improvement Campaign, are trying to identify employment barriers in the community. And they're also hoping to come up with some solutions.

Mark Marquez is a career advisor with Job Corps, which helps young people between the ages of 16 and 24 obtain job training and certifications and find employment.

"David Velasquez with Workforce Solutions and I are connected through the Work Keys program, which helps employers test potential hires. The test determines if the person will fit into the profile of what the employers want," Marquez said.

Job Corps also offers various screenings as part of admission into its program. The admission program was temporarily halted following sequestration, but Job Corps is now accepting applicants again. Young people accepted into Job Corps program are sent to training centers within the state. The center they are sent to depends on their screening results and vocational interests. Housing and stipends are provided during the training.

Natasha Jones, 19, who has completed the Job Corps program, said it helped set her on a positive employment path. For her training, Jones spent seven months in Albuquerque learning office administration skills.

"They taught me how to do Microsoft, Powerpoint and other office skills," Jones said. "After you get out, you have a career adviser who helps you get a job."

Jones is now working as a cashier at McDonald's in Farmington and is soon to be promoted to crew trainer.

"Natasha did great in the training, and her manager wants to move her up to more leadership roles," said Marquez. "That's what Job Corps does. It gives them a good base and gives them what they need to move up. Natasha is also intent on completing her high school diploma and is really trying hard to succeed."

Marquez says programs like Job Corps are important due to the high rate of unemployment among young people.

"Youth have the highest estimated unemployment rate, hovering at about 20 percent nationwide," he said. "The poverty rate is also about 20 percent.

Access to affordable housing, which is also related to the high rate of poverty, is one of the barriers to employability that Marquez and the others have identified.

"If you're earning $7.50 an hour in your job, your safety net is eroded. Many people can't afford to pay rent for an apartment at that rate," he said.

Pamela Drake, the director of San Juan County Partnership, agrees that lack of affordable housing is a major problem in the county.

"It's like a vicious cycle. If people don't have jobs, they can't get housing. If they can't get housing, they can't get a job," Drake said. Her organization provides rental assistance for housing, but only if individuals are supported by some type of income.

"If they don't have an income, they're in (housing) one day and out the next, so it's really hard. But getting employment isn't just about getting housing. It's about providing a stable environment for kids and keeping them in school. It's about taking care of our babies."

Job Corps is located at 3535 E. 30th St., Suite 118, Farmington. Employers can call 505-564-9610, and young people interested in applying for Job Corps can call 505-564-3468. Workforce Solutions is located at 600 W. Arrington St., Farmington. Call 505-327-6126.

Drake said San Juan County Partnership refers individuals to agencies like Workforce Solutions when they are unable to receiving housing assistance due to unemployment.

Another major impediment to employability in the county, Marquez said, is lack of transportation. Many people, especially on the reservation, must walk or hitchhike into town to locate jobs.

"We had one (client) who would hitchhike back and forth from Cuba, New Mexico," he said. "Even for people who might have education and training, if they don't have a way to get to a job or to apply for a job, it's a big issue. These are the hidden things those of us who have cars don't see. We don't realize what others are going through."

Marquez and Velasquez have been looking into ways to alleviate some of these problems. Marquez has analyzed the Navajo Transit System, but he said the routes and schedules don't accommodate those working swing shifts. He suggested that development of a carpooling system might be on possible solution.

Other employment issues in the county, Marquez said, are lack of education and language barriers. Many people are also unable to pass pre-employment drug screening because of substance abuse, and they are being turned away because of past criminal convictions.

"Even if someone is qualified for a job, many employers won't hire them if they've had past convictions. Workforce Solutions is working with employers who will give ex-felons a chance for job placement," Marquez said, adding that many employers don't realize that there are tax breaks for hiring people with past criminal convictions.

Marquez said his team will continue their assessment of employment issues and their efforts to improve employability in the region, but he said input from the public would be helpful.

"We'd like to hear from people, hear about their issues and get their ideas," said Marquez. "I'd like to invite employers who don't know about Job Corps to give me a call so I can explain the program and other opportunities in the community."

Leigh Black Irvin can be reached at; 505-564-4610. Follow her on Twitter @irvindailytimes.