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NM needs to prepare future workforce now, experts say

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – Preparing the future workforce for higher skilled jobs is critical and New Mexico needs to do more now, said industry, government and academic experts on the final day of the Domenici Public Policy conference.

“We do have to think about disrupting the way we are educating our kids,” said Ken Eisner, senior manager for worldwide education programs at Amazon Web Services.

Eisner’s talk focused on teaching a cloud-enabled workforce to do jobs that are in demand now as more companies shift data to remote servers.

The initiative includes working with teachers and students as well as retraining current workers.

“Amazon is doing a huge initiative to take nontech workers and make them tech,” said Eisner. “It absolutely can be done.”

Closing the skills gap needs to begin early and involve students of all backgrounds and income levels, said Pedro Noguera, distinguished professor of education at the Graduate school of Education and Information Studies at the University of California Los Angeles.

“We need to ensure schools are the equalizers of the economy,” said Noguera. He said many schools lack the support to help children who are coping with poverty at home.

“New Mexico knows this more than any other state, because your schools are in serious trouble,” said Noguera. Rather than blame schools that are failing, he said more must be done to figure out why and help them succeed.

“We need to use assessment as a tool, not a weapon. We’ve been using test scores as a weapon,” said Noguera. And he warned the consequences of not investing in children will show up in the workforce and economy.

“If we don’t have access to opportunity, the American dream becomes a distant memory,” said Noguera.

The conference, an annual event at New Mexico State University, was founded by Sen. Pete Domenici to address regional and national public policy issues. The New Mexico senator, who died Wednesday, had attended all previous conferences and guided their agendas.

University students were among those who attended the two-day conference to learn about preparing for the future workforce. A panel of 22 students nominated by public universities in New Mexico asked the speakers questions.

Celina Bussey, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, said employers are demanding more education and higher degrees than they did 10 years ago.

“The technical nature of every job has changed. It requires a higher skill set.”

Bussey said ensuring that more of the state’s children go to college also means helping their young parents get an education now. And she highlighted a program in Doña Ana County that helps parents go back to school or get a G.E.D.

“These two-generation approaches are extremely important,” said Bussey.

Many American families are struggling because wage increases have been stagnant for decades, and there’s been a decline in “middle wage, middle skill jobs,” said Seth Harris, a former acting and deputy U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Harris’ talk focused on the “future of the workplace.” He said that while some jobs have disappeared or are in decline, and there is concern about a “robot apocalypse,” he told the packed convention center he predicts that in the future there will be “plenty of jobs.” During past disruptions, people adapted and new jobs were created, he said.

And he, as well as other speakers, said that some jobs require human talents, like emotional intelligence, empathy and communication skills.

Medicine is an area with both a growing demand for those skills and a labor shortage, said Dr. Antonia Novello, the first woman and Hispanic to serve as U.S. surgeon general.

Novello said an aging population means the shortage of doctors will only get worse. And there’s also growing need for more minority doctors, she said.

“I want to make sure you send medical students to the poorest parts of New Mexico, especially Las Cruces,” said Novello.

Doctors with dual language skills and cultural training are in high demand, and all future doctors need to know how to work in underserved communities, said Novello.

“You have to teach the student of tomorrow with the neighborhood of today.”