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Sandia exec talks growth and growing pains

Dori Ellis

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sandia National Laboratories’ recent growth has stretched its infrastructure to capacity, prompting the organization to look at keeping around one-third of its workers remote on an ongoing basis.

Dori Ellis, deputy director and chief operating officer for Sandia, discussed the lab’s impact on the community and its future plans during a presentation hosted by the Economic Forum of Albuquerque Wednesday morning.

During the presentation, Ellis said the organization’s wave of recent hires — including 1,000 new employees brought on during the COVID-19 pandemic — stretched the organization’s resources and made it difficult to bring employees back to the office. About 10,000 Sandia employees have worked remotely since the beginning of the pandemic, and the lab has worked hard to integrate them into the larger community, Ellis said.

“It’s really important to us to try to get some of those people who have a longer history (with Sandia) to reach out and make those new employees feel included,” she said.

Because of the capacity challenges, Ellis said the lab is looking at keeping between 30% and 35% of its workforce working remotely on at least a part-time basis even once the pandemic abates.

Ellis said the decision is due in part to the fact that the lab is short on space for employees at Kirtland Air Force Base after adding about 5,000 employees over the previous four years. She said the office is about 96% occupied, and the relationship between the base and the U.S. Department of Energy makes it challenging to invest in infrastructure.

Between salaries and pensions, the lab has spent more than $1.5 billion on labor in New Mexico. Today, Sandia employs 14,600 people across its footprint. Ellis said the lab has prioritized diversifying its workforce, and its minority representation rose from 34% in fiscal year 2017 to 38% in 2020.

“We’re trying to make sure that our population represents your population,” Ellis told the Albuquerque crowd.

The lab signed 31 new Cooperative Research and Development Agreements — known as CRADAs — in its last fiscal year, including agreements with local heavyweights like University of New Mexico and Public Service Company of New Mexico.

Ellis said the agreement with PNM will allow the two institutions to work together on grid security and viable energy alternatives for New Mexico and the nation.

Ellis added that the lab has prioritized its partnerships with small businesses in New Mexico and elsewhere. Sandia has committed to award 60% of its total subcontracting dollars to small businesses by 2022, and helped local businesses pivot during the pandemic through its New Mexico Small Business Assistance program.

Ellis said Sandia is invested in making Albuquerque a vibrant and attractive place to relocate going forward.

“Frankly, if we’re going to hire people to come here, this has to be a place that you can sell without a lot of effort,” she said.

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