NM must build a homegrown tech workforce. Here's one way to do it.

By:  U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich

New Mexico has long been at the center of technology innovation. Research and development at our national laboratories, universities and military installations has led to major breakthroughs in computing, energy, health care and national security.

The technology industry is a driving force in creating jobs and expanding economic growth. In 2016 alone, the technology sector contributed more than $1 trillion to the U.S. economy, employed more than 7 million workers and added more than 100,000 new jobs. Almost 50,000 New Mexicans work in the tech sector at both our federal research labs and in the private sector at innovative information technology, manufacturing and engineering companies. The average tech industry wage in New Mexico is $85,200 a year, which is double the average state wage.

Despite these impressive numbers, tech employers often say they can’t find candidates with the right skills to grow their businesses. In the fourth quarter, there were more than 2,000 tech occupation job openings in New Mexico. Additionally, Sandia National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratories estimate they will need to fill over 5,000 vacancies in the next five years. Equipping our students and workers with the skills they need to fill those high-paying 21st-century jobs is essential if we want to build a vibrant economic future in New Mexico.

Post-secondary education is increasingly important for success in the modern economy. However, not every tech career requires a four-year degree — and that includes numerous positions at our national labs. For many career paths, complementing classroom training with practical on-the-job experiences is the most effective and efficient way for workers to develop the skills necessary to thrive.

Apprenticeships are a proven method to develop workers, but America lags far behind peer countries implementing them. That’s why I introduced the bipartisan Championing Apprenticeships for New Careers and Employees in Technology (CHANCE in Tech) Act with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) to encourage educators and businesses to start apprenticeship programs for the tech sector. This will connect more American workers to a growing sector where jobs are opening up every day.

Under the CHANCE in Tech Act, public-private partnerships would serve as intermediaries between employers participating in registered apprenticeship programs, industry and training partners, and government entities like state agencies and community colleges. Each intermediary would assess and train potential apprentices, lessening the regulatory burden on participating employers by taking on the responsibility of tracking success.

Community colleges have an important role to play in this effort because they understand the needs of local employers and can design programs and courses that are responsive to employers’ current and future needs. The CHANCE in Tech Act was inspired by the New Mexico Information Technology Apprenticeship Program (NMITAP) at Central New Mexico Community College, which is using federal funding from the U.S. Department of Labor and partnerships with local technology businesses to build an information technology pipeline in Albuquerque.

Graduates of NMITAP learn new computer coding skills and earn industry-recognized credentials. They put those skills to use at local technology companies that provide work experience through apprenticeships. Jesse Grider, a New Mexico National Guard member who is enrolled in the program, said, “Before the apprenticeship program, I had a little real world experience.” After his apprenticeship at local health technology company UnityBPO, Grider will have the skills and work experience for a long-term career.

For our state to remain competitive in the future economy, we need to recognize that learning and skill development for each New Mexican must continue over a lifetime. Investing in our workforce starts well before college or even high school. This is why access to universal pre-K is so important and why I am a strong advocate of the two-generation approach to support programs that provide opportunities for and meet the needs of parents and their children together.

We need our students and workers to be able to build their careers and start their families here in New Mexico. We have enormous potential to create jobs and major new industries if we can prepare our students and retrain our labor force for a lucrative high-tech job market. This is America's future, and one where New Mexico can shine – but only if we make the right choices today.