The state economic development secretary stressed establishing educational avenues to help spark skill-specific job growth at Tuesday’s Sandoval Economic Alliance luncheon at the Rio Rancho Events Center.

Alicia Keyes, New Mexico Economic Development’s Cabinet Secretary, speaks during a Sandoval Economic Alliance luncheon on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at the Rio Rancho Events Center. Matt Hollinshead photo.

New Mexico Economic Development Department Cabinet Secretary Alicia Keyes told attendees the state is targeting nine career fields, including aerospace, bioscience and film, for job growth and is working to establish higher education programs to meet such industry needs.

Keyes highlighted things like the benefits and average salaries of those industries. The plan she put forth is a 20-year plan.

“It’s absolutely encouraging that New Mexico Economic Development is looking at these things, how we can plan our future… and how we can capitalize on our strengths,” Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jerry Schalow told the Observer after the presentation.

For example, Keyes said her department proposed incorporating a film academy program for students and asked the legislature for $50 million to invest in that line of work.

“We’re going to model it after the Georgia Academy Program,” Keyes told the Observer. “It’s just (about) getting them more advanced training and connecting them with a company immediately after they graduate, by that internship… When you think about film and television, it’s everything from building sets to makeup, cosmetology and hair to (cinematography).”

She also said New Mexico’s asking for support to accommodate workers with higher wages and for businesses to consider paid internships.

“When I think about my career, I think about the success I’ve had, and it’s because I’ve had internships where I found mentors who really taught me how to do what I do. It made it happen, and then you continue to have those relationships, and they introduce you to people. That’s really how business is done, especially in New Mexico,” Keyes told the Observer. “Diversification of the economy is key, also really focusing on wage rates… We’re making sure that we do not incentivize companies unless they are paying more than the average wage in that community… Our wage rates aren’t tracking with the rest of the country.”

Schalow said a number of Rio Rancho businesses already have paid internship programs, adding he hopes that continues.

“(Students) have to get their feet wet in that career path, so an internship creates that opportunity to figure out ‘do they like this, or do they like that,'” Schalow said.

Keyes said businesses need to prioritize having New Mexico students garner such pertinent work experience.

Aside from discussing Local Economic Development Act funds, Keyes also told the Observer her department talked to companies about having internships and formalized programs with the state’s educational institutions.

“When we look at LEDA projects, we actually put internships in there. With Netflix, with NBC Universal, they have all internship components in there,” she said.

Keyes told the Observer the state still needs to map out a workforce plan when it comes to the bioscience industry but is looking at educational opportunities targeting bioscience.

She also said the curriculum is there with certain institutions, such as University of New Mexico’s Center of Excellence for Bioscience, and pathways to the workforce need to be identified.

“They need to make sure that they have the three research universities in the state of New Mexico on board for those,” Schalow said. “Then you also need to ensure that the community colleges have associate degree plans that can fulfill those needs as well.”

Keyes told the attendees disadvantaged communities didn’t fare well during the COVID-19 pandemic, while those with resources fared better, adding economic recovery and growth can only happen with community support.

She also told the attendees that a diversified economy is a resilient economy.

As encouraged as he is to see the state focus on career fields like bioscience, Schalow said the plan must also be viewed through the lens of one-year, three-year, five-year and 10-year increments to address “intermittent growth” to help ensure the 20-year plan’s a success.