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NMSU Welfare-to-Work Program Showing Success

LAS CRUCES - The welfare-to-work program for the southwest quadrant of New Mexico enters its third year leading the state in the percentage of participants employed and number of job openings available.


New Mexico Works, administered by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, provides training, education, job placement and assistance for participants in nine counties: Catron, Doņa Ana, Grant, Hidalgo, Lincoln, Luna, Otero, Sierra and Socorro.

"We have more people employed and more jobs developed than any other region in the state," said Billy Dictson, interim associate dean and Extension director. "We're pleased with that, although we of course would like to serve more participants."

Forty-two percent of New Mexico Works participants in southwestern New Mexico were in full- or part-time paid employment, according to the latest statistics, which cover the reporting period through April 2000.

Since its start in September 1998, 2,655 people in the region have secured jobs through the program. However, New Mexico Works job developers lined up 3,383 openings for participants during the same period.

"We actually have more jobs, as of April of this year, than we have clients placed," Dictson said. "One of the things we have found that we did not anticipate is that the jobs are out there, particularly in parts of Doņa Ana County, keeping in mind some of these are temporary or seasonal in nature.

"The big challenge at the present time is to match New Mexico Works participants with those jobs. We want to get them in jobs where they can sustain themselves and make a career."

Toward that goal, the program will focus on job retention in the coming contract year, which began June 1. NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service will conduct the program in Doņa Ana County, subcontracting with NMSU-Alamogordo, Eastern New Mexico's Roswell branch and Western New Mexico University in Silver City to serve the remaining counties.

"With a fairly large number of participants employed, what we need to do now is make sure they can stay employed," Dictson said. "So we're going to be tracking them every three months and reporting to the state Human Services Department the number of people who are employed for three months, six months, nine months and, ultimately, one year."

Three months ago, Extension signed a contract with the state Department of Labor to work with the most difficult-to-place welfare recipients, who may have substance abuse problems, language difficulties or other issues. "That program is just getting off the ground and running pretty well," Dictson said.

New Mexico Works also supports a number of special projects in the region. An innovative example is Oye Como Va, a bilingual radio program aired on KRUX-FM, 91.5, in Las Cruces. From 7 to 11 a.m each weekday, listeners in Doņa Ana County can tune in for their favorite music and information about New Mexico Works job openings and training opportunities. The program, hosted by Ray Nieto, features a lively mix of studio guests, call-ins, helpful information and community events. After a recent announcement of job openings at a canning plant aired on Oye Como Va, the company was deluged with applicants.

Other special projects include a dental assistant training program at Doņa Ana Branch Community College. The branch will oversee training on home based businesses, including creating arts and crafts for sale. The Las Cruces Housing Authority has funding to teach home maintenance and remodeling. The program will support vocational training in Truth or Consequences and child care training in Alamogordo. In Lincoln and Socorro counties, elder care and customer service training will be offered.

New Mexico Works will continue to offer help with basic education, specialized job training, transportation and childcare, Dictson said. "All of the pieces are there for people to make this program work for them."

What has made the program succeed in southwestern New Mexico is welfare recipients' desire to get jobs, employers' willingness to hire welfare recipients, a dedicated New Mexico Works staff and cooperative relationships among all the agencies involved, he said.

"In New Mexico, the Cooperative Extension Service has a reputation for working with people throughout the state for 85 years," Dictson said. "We have a history of helping people to help themselves economically and socially. When we took this job on, we did not take it lightly."

Just two years remain before a scheduled phaseout of federal welfare funding to the states in July 2002, he added.

"This is the best opportunity in my lifetime for society and welfare recipients to have a transition from governmental assistance to paid employment."