Editorial: AFR-APS teamwork could rescue NM workforce - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: AFR-APS teamwork could rescue NM workforce

You might consider rescuing things just part of a firefighter/EMT’s DNA.

Yes, Albuquerque Fire Rescue’s new ambassador program was born of dedicated individuals wanting to give back to the community by encouraging the next generation of their profession. But if scaled up it has the potential to help resuscitate our state’s struggling workforce participation and knock down our high poverty levels.

Right now just over half of N.M.’s working-age population, 56.7%, is actually working or looking for work. According to federal government websites, an estimated 382,798 of 2,076,524 New Mexicans live in poverty — roughly one in five or 18.4%. And just under half of the state’s population is on Medicaid, the government health insurance plan for the low income.

A big root cause of all that is New Mexico has the third highest dropout rate in the nation. More than 7,500 students in New Mexico drop out each year, according to eric.ed.gov.

So if a classroom visit from someone like AFR Capt. Chris Sotelo, a 15-year veteran of the fire department and a Manzano High School alum, gets students thinking about career opportunities, that’s encouraging. If it provides real-world tips to help them streamline their path and avoid frustrating bureaucratic hurdles that derail their goal, that’s promising. And if it can tap into a student’s interests and get them on a path to financial independence and security, that’s a victory for the student, the mentor and the local and state economies.

Fire Chief Gene Gallegos says “the hope is that one day … these young minds will want to join the public safety teams for the city of Albuquerque — and most importantly, possibly Albuquerque Fire Rescue.” It’s working. Manzano senior Juliana Hielkema says while she already wanted to be a firefighter, during his visit Soleto’s “passion just really spoke to me. I feel like this would be great for me, because I want to do something important and impactful.”

The connection is genius. But why stop there?

Over the past semester, Albuquerque Public Schools and AFR have been running the ambassador program at the district’s comprehensive high schools. If possible, it puts firefighters in the schools they graduated from, making them more relatable to students as they were once in their shoes.

And it sounds like a program that would work not only for public safety professionals like firefighters and EMTs (and law enforcement and corrections officers); but also those in the medical field, from doctors and nurses, to blood and X-ray technicians and pharmacists; to myriad STEM careers and more.

Critics might say this is little more than the career days of old, and we would respond, if it works, so what? As Hielkema’s reaction shows, there’s little that’s more inspiring to a young person than actually meeting someone who is making a good living doing what you want to do when it’s time to start “adulting.” And if they can give you tips, shortcuts, etc., to get you on your way, all the better.

In October panelists at an event sponsored by NAIOP New Mexico, the state’s largest commercial real estate organization, emphasized that skilling up the workforce from a young age is essential to the growth of the local economy. They explained that in practice, that means strong private-public partnerships between local schools and private businesses to show students the career opportunities available in the state.

So here’s to monitoring the AFR-APS ambassador program, and scaling it up to other careers and other districts — for the future of our students as well as our local and state economies.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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