Jobs, jobs, jobs. They are the first words out of every candidate’s mouth this election season, and I am no different.
But how to grow them and keep them for the residents of the many rural communities surrounding high tech centers like Los Alamos is the key question.
Even the residents of Los Alamos wait anxiously for word on whether lab jobs will be cut in a flood of partisan bickering in Washington.
We must diversify our economy so there are alternatives for everyone.
There is no quick, easy answer to the challenge of rural economic development, but here are a few of the ingredients for sustainable economic development in the area:
- Build on what we have. Whether they are restaurants, galleries, auto shops, construction services, or web-based sales, small businesses have been the lifeblood of our communities. The state should not be penalizing them with an upside-down tax structure. Currently, big box stores and large out-of-state corporations do not pay their fair share of state taxes, enjoying a “combined reporting” loophole that doesn’t require them to pay for their in-state operations. Instead our mom and pop stores pick up the slack, paying more than they should. Earlier this year, the legislature was finally able to get enough votes to close this loophole, but not with the support of Rep. Jim Hall, who voted against it. Unfortunately, small businesses will continue to be forced to pay more than they should while out-of-state businesses will often times pay no taxes on their profits made in New Mexico.
- Transfer technology developed in the labs to outlying communities. Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists are on the cutting edge of defense technology, yet unknown to many people, much of LANL’s technology is ripe for commercialization. Some of this technology is appropriate for spinning off and growing right here in northern New Mexico. Lab management is increasingly interested in promoting tech transfer in renewable energy, health fields and a variety of new technologies, but we lack sufficient business support services to assist these lab engineers as they become local entrepreneurs. Now is the time for the state to focus existing resources into helping these opportunities grow into local businesses located in the Jemez area and around northern New Mexico.
- Develop technical education for the new economy at local community colleges and extension programs. As a college graduate, I hate to say it but, in today’s economy, skills such as installing control systems, servicing smart electric meters or security systems, and fixing fiber-optic problems may be more viable than a liberal arts degree. Isn’t it time to acknowledge this and build an educational infrastructure to fit modern times? This is a vision mentioned a while back in the Los Alamos Monitor by Ralph Phelps, a former county councilor and lab employee, who sees Los Alamos as a “Technical Training Center of Excellence.” I agree. The classrooms and labs are already here; we need only a commitment from the state policy makers to get started with curriculum development, mentorship programs, and recruitment efforts.
- Invest in broadband and wireless computer access. Without it—and even with substandard service-—local entrepreneurs who depend on the web to share their information or sell their locally produced product cannot compete. Policy makers need to be utility savvy in this regard, invest wisely, and protect the interests of the little guy.
- Promote thinning projects in our forests to protect us from devastating fires like the recent Las Conchas fire. Scores of pueblo kids and local youths performed this task in days gone by. Wouldn’t we rather have them working with a pick and shovel than fighting fires that threaten property and lives? Already, LANL scientists predict forest gets drier in the coming years. When done correctly, the thinning projects and habitat restoration can extend the life of the forest. We need to work with the Valles Caldera Trust and the US Forest Service on these and other hands-on projects that can spark careers in forestry, botany and biology for our youth.