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Wanted: Entrepreneurs to fuel Albuquerque’s economy

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The economic policy of the city of Albuquerque is to create an urban environment that attracts and nurtures a population of entrepreneurs whose creative and commercial energies will cause hundreds or thousands of exciting new enterprises to sprout. That’s what’s behind the grocery store under construction Downtown, the Innovation District built around the Central/Broadway intersection, a proposed transportation corridor along Route 66, street fairs and growers’ markets, the rail yard events, free concerts in Old Town, and new housing in the older parts of Albuquerque.

This policy, in my opinion, recognizes two realities. Reality one is that our current workforce is, in general, poorly equipped to compete in a 21st century economy. I reported two weeks ago that Bureau of Labor Statistics studies show most jobs in Albuquerque pay significantly less than the same jobs in the rest of the country. I said the data imply that the skills our workforce offers are not sufficient to command market rates.

Reality two is that our existing commercial culture must be overhauled, if not replaced altogether. Though it is rarely said in polite company, and then is only whispered, our business community, with some exciting exceptions, doesn’t seem to be very good at entrepreneurship.

Gerry Bradley, a labor economist and policy thinker with New Mexico Voices for Children, said in an interview that over decades New Mexico’s economy has hardly changed. The types of jobs we have here and the proportions of our workforce in each job category barely budge. At the same time, Bradley said, demand for labor in New Mexico appears to be low. Low demand combined with an ill-equipped workforce, which Bradley blames on inadequate investment in human capital, gets you consistently low wages.

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A dynamic economy, one driven by entrepreneurial zeal, would have evolved over time so that different kinds of jobs would be created and demand for labor would climb.

The New Mexico Center for School Leadership is hoping to open a fourth charter school next year devoted to giving students the skills they need to be entrepreneurs. The center has already started schools focused on technology, the health professions, and architecture, engineering and construction.

These aren’t vocational schools. They are schools that train students how to think and act. Before a school is opened, the center gets businesspeople to tell it what they need from their workforce. Lessons are built around projects. The new tech high school, opened this month, is working on projects to improve cybersecurity, for example.

“What we have right now is a really huge, gaping hole between what schools do and the experience you have when you’re employed,” said Tony Monfiletto, the center’s director. “We have some great employers, but we don’t ask them what are the creative things they do in their companies and work backwards from that. I don’t mean vocational training. I mean critical thinking and problem solving that are rooted in reality.”

The center has recruited local entrepreneurs to advise it, and it is trying to come up with projects the students can undertake to develop an entrepreneur’s skills.

A third reality is that entrepreneurs look at the world differently from most of us. They are in the business of noticing things that are missing and filling those gaps profitably. UNM Business Dean Emeritus Doug Brown, for one, was standing in a movie theater line, noticed he was eligible for a senior discount, and decided to start a company that helped seniors find discounts by visiting a single website. Albuquerque’s Lavu developed point-of-service software tools when its founders met a local restaurant owner who wanted a better way to incorporate technology into his business.

These are not the skills you exercise if your business is to write a proposal that will secure a government contract. That business requires an ability to convince a government contracting officer that you can do the job and an ability to make sure you are in complete compliance with the terms of the contract. The goal of such a business is to keep the government contract or grant for as long as possible, not to find a way to turn on a dime to meet a new need the market has just revealed.

It has long been an open question whether entrepreneurs are made or born. Is it possible to train someone to see the world as a collection of unmet needs just begging to be satisfied? Or are people just wired that way? And, however they got that way, is it possible that they will want to live here?

To our credit, our community is trying very hard to answer those questions.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or wquigley@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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