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NM can plug the STEM brain drain

When I read about our brain drain or businesses saying we lack a high-tech workforce, it shocks me because I know hundreds of high-tech science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) professionals who want to be here. I came to the University of New Mexico 30 years ago because I loved our students. They continue to amaze me.

I also hear people who say there are no jobs. But economic leaders know there are thousands of jobs here. These kinds of disconnects present great opportunities.

STEM Boomerang was organized to address some of these issues, and inspired by these disconnects and a number of unexpected events. The pre-Ph.D. program I had run for 15 years was ending. Business people said the lack of a high-tech workforce was limiting business. I had a database and hundreds of young professionals from New Mexico who we were in touch with. We saw an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been tried before and might be amazing.

Over 170 STEM professionals responded to our first survey. About 60 percent had Ph.D.s and 50 percent were ready to work in a year. Economic development representatives helped us get to know business leaders who were also enthusiastic.

Last December, more than 115 participants met with people representing hiring entities and a range of economic sectors. These interactions led to jobs and optimism that there was a possibility to come home to a great career. As of today, almost a dozen professionals have jobs. At the event, both recruiters and participants expressed amazement at the level of talent and the range of innovative ideas being developed in the state. It was a win.

The second STEM Boomerang, organized with the encouragement of both Albuquerque and Santa Fe mayors, is today at UNM. It was funded predominantly by UNM and my program funds, with support from economic development groups, the city and state. The goal is to bring back and keep highly educated – Ph.D./MS/BS – talent in New Mexico. State economic leaders are encouraged to come so they can understand the impact of this event. This year, we expanded our engineering outreach, and targeted aerospace businesses and professionals, because this is an exciting and growing area of our economy.

STEM Boomerang has significant potential benefits beyond jobs. Realtors, marketing firms and others have seen the benefits of STEM Boomerang. Campaigns by both current U.S. Reps. Steve Pearce and (Gov.-elect) Michelle Lujan Grisham were enthusiastic. STEM Boomerang, as it grows, has the potential to benefit and connect our whole state.

Brain drain is a difficult problem, and these kinds of problems are perpetuated by bottlenecks that take some effort to identify. Here are some bottlenecks that, if fixed, would make eliminating brain drain much easier:

1. Dispelling the idea that there are no jobs and that young professionals don’t want to come back. There are and they do.

2. Knowing who our competitors are. For brain drain, our real competitors are other states. New Mexico, as a whole, needs to be on the same team. We need to re-evaluate how we present ourselves and target specific talent groups, together.

3. Realizing that long-term relationships with young people are extremely important. We all need to do a better job of staying in contact with New Mexican talent. We are not doing this statewide, and fixing this is easy.

4. Developing a better statewide publicity stream. Great ideas, from any part of New Mexico, need to find a way to be heard and discussed.

5. Finding ways to come out of our silos. STEM Boomerang is just one piece of growing New Mexico’s future. Because people didn’t know our high-tech workforce, they assumed it didn’t exist. Silos perpetuate assumptions. If we want New Mexico to have inclusive growth, we have to get past our assumptions.

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