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Plugging the STEM brain drain

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

“Come home for the holidays, stay forever.”

That’s the theme of this year’s STEM Boomerang job fair and holiday mix, a new initiative that unites young professionals in science, technology, engineering and math careers with local companies seeking their knowledge and talent. The initiative aims to bring STEM professionals who left the state to pursue higher education or careers elsewhere back home to make their living here, while also exposing younger, up-and-coming STEM students and graduates in the state to the extensive resources and opportunities available to them in New Mexico.

Kelli Cooper

Kelli Cooper

STEM Boomerang, which retired University of New Mexico biology professor Maggie Werner-Washburne launched in 2017, has encouraged a broad range of organizations, nonprofits, businesspeople and government officials to work together to help plug New Mexico’s chronic brain drain.

This year, the Albuquerque Community Foundation will merge its own end-of-year “entrepreneurial ecosystem expo,” or E3, event with STEM Boomerang to offer a unique, two-day job fair and networking Christmas bash on Dec. 19-20. E3, which the Foundation launched last December, is a quarterly community get-together held at the Innovate ABQ research and development site Downtown that connects job seekers and existing and aspiring entrepreneurs with companies and resources available to them. It features “reverse pitch” presentations by nonprofit organizations, with lightning, 75-second appeals to participants to take advantage of the resources they offer.

Reverse pitching

At this year’s Dec. 19 event, nearly a dozen companies and public institutions will do reverse pitches to participating STEM professionals about what those firms can offer them, Foundation Vice President Kelli Cooper said.

Maggie Werner- Washburne

Maggie Werner- Washburne

“We asked each company to offer a fun pitch about why they’re the best one to work for,” Cooper said. “We want to communicate the excitement, energy and momentum underway in our ecosystem and encourage our STEM boomerangers to come home.”

A more typical job fair with 35 companies will follow on Friday, Dec. 20, at the new Electric Playhouse site, at Coors and Central, that is scheduled to open Feb. 1. The Playhouse, which offers interactive digital entertainment for individuals and groups, will provide a sneak preview of its entertainment venue for participants.

“We do a lot of software development in the digital arts and need developers and IT and website managers,” Playhouse CEO John-Mark Collins said. “This is a great way for us to get young folks excited about what we’re doing.”

Paul L. Silverman

Paul L. Silverman

STEM Boomerang has united many key players in the local ecosystem as a novel economic development strategy to recruit and retain STEM professionals. This year’s holiday events, co-sponsored by local startup Lavu Inc. and the city of Albuquerque, will include state universities, the national labs, and industry groups such as the New Mexico Technology Council and New Space NM.

Year-round resource

Many of them are helping Werner-Washburne build STEM Boomerang into a sustainable, year-round resource with tools to connect STEM professionals with local opportunities, such as a forthcoming, interactive “Gateway to New Mexico” website to link up people in and out of state.

The Legislature approved $145,000 this year through New Mexico Workforce Solutions for STEM Boomerang to evaluate the issues and difficulties STEM professionals face to come back home, based on surveys of administrators and hiring managers in the public and private sectors, and of former New Mexico residents.

Last year’s end-of-year bash attracted about 150 STEM professionals with connections to New Mexico. About 130 have expressed interest in participating this year, Werner-Washburne said.

Many want to start their own businesses here, encouraging STEM Boomerang to offer educational sessions during the holiday event about resources now available for startups in New Mexico, said Lisa Kuuttila, president and CEO of the Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech-transfer office.

“We want to let them know about the programs that now exist that weren’t here before they left New Mexico,” Kuuttila said.

Paul L. Silverman, manager and CEO of the commercial real estate development firm Geltmore LLC, said STEM Boomerang could do a lot to help plug New Mexico’s brain drain.

“What it’s doing may be one of the most important economic development efforts underway in the state,” said Silverman, who is assisting in the initiative. “It’s creating an interface between STEM people and people who need their brains in the local market.”

Christmas event connects professionals with jobs and resources

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