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Ending the brain drain: Welcoming back New Mexico STEM professionals

December 16, 2018

When I read about our brain drain or businesses saying we lack a high tech workforce, it shocks me because I know hundreds of high-tech science, tech, engineering and math professionals who want to be here. I came to the University of New Mexico and New Mexico 30 years ago because I loved our students. They continue to amaze me.

I also hear people say there are no jobs. But economic leaders know there are thousands of jobs here.

STEM Boomerang was organized in 2017 to address these issues and was inspired by a number of unexpected events. The pre-doctoral program that I had run for 15 years was ending. Business people said the lack of a high-tech workforce was limiting business. I had a database and hundreds of young professionals from New Mexico that we were in touch with. We saw an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been tried before and might be amazing.

More than 170 STEM professionals responded to our first survey. About 60 percent had doctorates and 50 percent were ready to work in a year. Economic development representatives helped us get to know business leaders who were also enthusiastic.

Last December, more than 115 participants met at UNM with hiring entities and a range of economic sectors. These interactions led to jobs and a clear signal that professionals could come home to a great career. As of today, almost a dozen professionals have jobs. At the event, both recruiters and participants expressed amazement at the level of talent and the range of innovative ideas being developed in the state. It was a win.

The second STEM Boomerang, organized with the encouragement of both Albuquerque and Santa Fe mayors and funded predominantly by UNM and my program funds, is Dec. 20 at UNM. The goal is to bring back and keep highly educated talent in New Mexico. State economic leaders are encouraged to come to see the scope and potential of this event. This year, we are also targeting aerospace businesses and professionals, working with Casey DeRaad of New Space New Mexico, an exciting and growing area of our economy. We all have an interest both in bringing in great talent who know and love our state and in keeping the talent we have here, ready for the bright future we see in tech, biotech and aerospace.

STEM Boomerang has significant, potential benefits beyond jobs. Realtors, marketing firms and others have see the benefits of STEM Boomerang. Both the Pearce and Lujan Grisham gubernatorial campaigns were enthusiastic. It has the potential to impact and benefit all of New Mexico.

Brain drain is a difficult problem, and these kinds of problems are perpetuated by bottlenecks that take effort to identify. Here are some bottlenecks that, if fixed, would make eliminating New Mexico’s brain drain much easier.

u Dispelling the idea that there are no jobs and that young professionals don’t want to come back. There are and they do.

u Knowing who our competitors are. For brain drain, our real competitors are other states. New Mexico, as a whole, should be on the same team, re-evaluate how we present ourselves and target specific talent groups, together.

u Valuing our long-term relationships with New Mexico’s young people. We all need to do a better job of staying in contact with New Mexican talent. We are not doing this statewide and fixing this is easy.

u Developing a better statewide publicity stream. Great ideas, from any part of New Mexico, need to find a way to be heard and discussed.

u Finding ways to come out of our silos. Because people didn’t know our high-tech workforce, they assumed it didn’t exist. Silos perpetuate assumptions, and if we want New Mexico to grow in this area, we need more effective ways of communicating. Registration: www.stemboomerang.org.

Maggie Werner Washburne is Regents’ professor of biology emerita at UNM. She is also in a band and has a farm in Cuba, N.M. She has received many national mentoring awards for her work to diversify STEM.

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