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Experts: STEM workers to drive NM’s future

Clockwise from top left, Mitzi Montoya, dean of University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management; Dan Arvizu, chancellor of New Mexico State University; Garnett Stokes, president of UNM; and Van Romero, vice president for research at New Mexico Tech, were among speakers at Tuesday’s UNM Business & Economic Summit.

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The next decade could prove to be a crucial turning point in New Mexico’s economic future, with public universities and national laboratories taking the lead, according to speakers at the University of New Mexico’s third business and economic summit.

The virtual summit Tuesday, which centered on a recent economic report produced by the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, gathered leaders in business, education and technology to explore ways the state can navigate a post-pandemic economy while also spurring new economic development.

The report, titled “Driving New Mexico’s Future,” identified current economic challenges and provided specific solutions to address the challenges.

One of the keys to success, according to speakers and the report, is ensuring the talent necessary for jobs in important sectors such as technology.

“The No. 1 barrier that I see that’s limiting our growth is the quality and quantity of STEM talent in New Mexico,” said Col. Eric Felt, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate. “Right now I have 50 vacancies that I cannot find the right people to fill.”

Felt said there is a lot of opportunity for growth in the space economy within New Mexico, but attracting talent to the state is a barrier.

“We don’t have enough STEM workers in the state,” he said. “We need to make New Mexico a more attractive place for out-of-state STEM employees to relocate.”

But elsewhere, the need for STEM employees increasingly is being filled from within the state, thanks to new educational partnerships. Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thom Mason said that although 40% of current staff members were recruited from out of state, 75% of last year’s hires came from New Mexico.

“Part of the reason for that is because we’ve been able to work with the educational institutions to kind of set up pipelines that meet those needs,” Mason said. “And we’re going to need to do more of it.”

Mason said many LANL employees got their start as interns during their time as graduate or undergraduate students.

“If I go into a room at the lab and say, ‘How many people here began as a student, as an intern, or as a graduate student?’ a majority of hands will go up,” he said. “Doesn’t matter what room it is, what group I’m talking to.”

Public universities could play a role in crafting programs to provide the much-needed workers in New Mexico’s technology economy, higher education leaders said at the event.

“The question is, what’s the role of public universities in statewide economic development?” Arizona State University President Michael Crow said during the keynote address. “And the answer … is the role is central, it’s essential. It’s, in fact, so important that we need to figure out how to do it.”

Crow said the increasing globalization of the economy should prompt public universities to look for ways to help their state become more economically competitive at national and international levels.

“The economic competitiveness changes that are occurring around the world right now, and the rise of scientific prowess and knowledge-driven enterprises are moving faster than American universities,” he said.

But public universities can combat this through steps such as taking entrepreneurial and forward-looking approaches in creating unique degree programs, Crow said.

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