Los Alamos Monitor: Heinrich, colleges look at filling LANL jobs

Preparing New Mexico’s workers > Rountable discussion focuses on how learning institutions can prepare students for LANL careers

By:  Arin McKenna

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D–N.M.) wants to boost New Mexicans’ chances of filling approximately 2,000 vacancies at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in the next five years.

To facilitate that goal, Heinrich gathered representatives from LANL and seven northern New Mexico colleges for a roundtable on Wednesday to discuss ways to tailor programs to meet the lab’s needs and better prepare students to compete for those positions.

“With thousands of jobs turning over at Los Alamos in the next five years, we need to make sure we’re leveraging every one of those that we can get to come from a New Mexico institution,” Heinrich said.

LANL’s Acting Deputy Director of Human Resources Johnny Herrera gave statistics on the number of vacancies anticipated between now and 2020. The lab projects the need for 675 new people in research and development, 375 in science and engineering support, 700 in the business service sector and 675 in operations support.

Herrera noted that those numbers do not include craft workers, such as electricians and pipe fitters, since those positions are filled through the unions. He stressed that there is an ongoing need to fill those positions as well.

LANL Director of Community Relations and Partnerships Kathy Keith and her colleague Carole Rutten pointed out ways the lab is currently partnering with educational institutions, such as bringing LANL employees to the classroom to give advice about shaping curriculums.

New Mexico Highlands University President Sam Minner, Marty Hewlett, interim CEO  of University of New Mexico (UNM)−Taos, Alexis Tappan, special assistant to the president of Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) President Randy Grissom, Vidal Martinez, vice president of instruction at Luna Community College (LCC), UNM-LA CEO Cynthia Rooney and Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) interim President Domingo Sanchez III discussed successful programs already in place and sought advice on how to be more effective.

Grissom made an astute observation about one obstacle to recruiting in Northern New Mexico.

“My gut feel is that too many people think the jobs in Los Alamos are only for people with PhDs,” Grissom said. “How do we as a group change that? Even in Santa Fe the jobs are going to out-of-state people because we don’t have people qualified to fill them.”

All of the institutions represented have successful STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs in place, but increasing interest in those programs was a major concern.

“The problem is, the funnel’s not big enough on the front end,” Minner said. “We have to get more young kids interested in those disciplines. We have to convince them that they can do it.”

Minner asked LANL to consider producing a publication about careers at the lab and how to prepare for them, perhaps highlighting graduates from local colleges employed at the lab as a means of inspiring others.

Highlands offers outreach programs such as coding camps for elementary and middle school students, something Minner would like to increase.

Rooney spoke about UNM-LA’s efforts to expand the pipeline, such as next week’s “Career Exploration” program, which brings students from eighth grade through high school on campus to experience as many STEM careers as possible.

UNM-LA has also submitted for a Title III grant called “Expanding the pipeline for STEM.”

Hewlett discussed how UNM-Taos is utilizing “intrusive” advising such as pizza parties with advisors to interest students in STEM programs.

The campus is also bringing STEM into the high school through a dual credit program. Five students received associate degrees along with their high school diplomas this year. Luna and UNM-LA both have STEM programs in the high schools as well.

Heinrich asked about reaching younger students.

“Is there a way to take some of the more inspirational work of the labs and get it in front of the students?” Heinrich asked.

“It’s great to have a job fair at the end, but part of what Los Alamos does is jaw dropping inspirational for somebody who cares about science, and getting some of that in front of people when they’re freshmen or first year students in program, so that they have that North Star of ‘I have a goal and I want to get someplace.’”

Francisco Apodaca, LCC’s director of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, talked about how Luna is doing just that.

“During the summer we have arranged to take our students to Los Alamos to see STEM in action, take them to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, not to the museum but back to the curators, to see the Mars Rover, those types of things to stimulate that STEM interest,” Apodaca said.

Apodaca also discussed a new LCC program to bring science into elementary classrooms in underserved communities.

“We’re going to go on the road with a science show for elementary school kids,” Apodaca said. “That’s what we need to do, is begin to stimulate them and begin that pipeline. You want to build a funnel? Build a funnel there. That’s where it starts.”

Tappan wanted information about how students with associate’s degrees could hire in at the lab and then continue their education through to the Ph.D. level. She pointed out the advantage to that, confirming with Herrera that LANL’s retention rate is higher for New Mexico residents.

Tappan and others wanted to know more about the barriers New Mexicans face in securing lab employment that the colleges might be able to address.

Rutten suggested helping student’s craft lab-specific resumes and stressed the importance of high grade point average and staying out of trouble in order to qualify for security clearance.

Herrera added that students should be coached on using social media responsibly, with security clearances in mind.

Participants immediately began discussing ways to prepare students beginning in their freshman year.

“Sometimes we focus on the end result, the graduate,” Martinez said. “We need to go beyond that. We need to get freshmen and sophomore students and let them know what’s required, especially the background checks. I think that’s very critical. How many students complete their degree but then cannot pass that background check?”

Martinez asked LANL to consider an all-college symposium where students could meet people employed in various positions at the lab.

Rooney urged her colleagues to send students to the LANL Student Symposium, scheduled for Aug. 3 at UNM-LA.  

“When you see what the students who are working at the lab did for their projects that summer, you will be inspired,” Rooney said.

Minner and Tappan also asked for help getting LANL employees into classrooms to teach.

“A strong predictor of math/science performance is the knowledge and skill that those teachers have,” Minner said. “They’re a few pages ahead of teaching the kids in some cases. It’s no wonder our performance is not good.”

Keith noted that teaching is an option for the community service leave time, a program that offers paid leave for community service.

Tappan suggested that LANL might help encourage retirees to explore a second career in teaching, possibly transitioning into that through community service during their final years with the lab.

Hewlett suggested that LANL consider a scholarship program similar to one UNM-Taos implemented at with the local hospital for the nursing program, in which scholarship recipients agree to work a certain number of years at the hospital.

Heinrich asked the roundtable participants to think about next steps that his office might help facilitate.

“There’s an enormous amount of talent around this table in figuring out how we can be collaborative, rather than competitive, and leveraging this, figuring out how we can take the most advantage of the next few years,” Heinrich said.

When the Los Alamos Monitor asked Heinrich if he himself came away with ideas about how to implement some of this, he replied, “Some of it’s just fundamental coordination, making sure that people know what the opportunities are so that they can tweak their curriculum.

“And then also make sure that students know about it early enough in the pipeline to do something about it. If you’re a senior at one of these institutions, that’s not the time to be thinking about the fact that you have to have a clean record to pass a background check. It really needs to be when you walk in the front door, you need to know what the expectations are going to be for you.”