STEM Boomerang helps plug NM's brain drain

·5 min read

Dec. 5—STEM Boomerang will host its annual holiday gathering of brainiacs this Thursday to connect local employers with science, technology, engineering and math professionals who want to apply their talents in New Mexico.

It's the fourth career fair hosted by STEM Boomerang, which launched in 2017 to hook up in-state and out-of-state STEM professionals with local employers. This year's Christmas gathering will feature job opportunities currently open at a dozen different New Mexico-based entities, including the state's national labs, Presbyterian Healthcare Services and private businesses.

The free, online event, which runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., will feature presentations by each participating employer, followed by break-out sessions for prospective job-seekers to meet directly with hiring managers, said STEM Boomerang co-founder and CEO Monica Sandoval-Johnson.

"We've helped hundreds of STEM professionals land good-paying local jobs through our career fairs, and through online services that we provide to match personal qualifications with specific skill sets employers are seeking," Sandoval-Johnson told the Journal. "We're filling a niche for STEM professionals and employers by bringing people together."

STEM Boomerang works with professionals at all levels, from bachelor of science to doctoral degrees. In the process, it's helped repatriate STEM professionals who had left the state to New Mexico.

In addition, it connects in-state STEM students and graduates with local employers, allowing homegrown talent to pursue opportunities here rather than depart to other places, while also making the recruitment process easier for companies seeking highly skilled workers. And that, in turn, helps plug New Mexico's chronic brain drain, said Maggie Werner-Washburne, the University of New Mexico biology professor emeritus who created STEM Boomerang in 2017.

Local employers have struggled to find skilled employees, and STEM professionals who left New Mexico have few resources to seek New Mexico-based jobs, Werner-Washburne said. But the problem isn't a lack of job opportunities — it's a lack of adequate communication and connections.

"Businesses don't think the talent pool exists here, and the talent pool doesn't realize that jobs are available in New Mexico," she told the Journal. "We need to reduce the silos that people operate in on both the academic and the business sides. We need to facilitate connections to allow an easy flow of communication back and forth."

To do that, STEM Boomerang has expanded beyond career fairs to become a full-time, year-round service for employers and professionals.

It launched a web-based "career portal" last summer with advanced algorithms to identify specific skill sets among STEM job-seekers, and then match them with local employers seeking to hire people with those qualifications.

Sandia National Laboratory helped build the algorithms through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance program, which facilitates free lab support for local companies.

"Sandia researchers helped us develop methods to better match skills with needs," Werner-Washburne said. "The algorithms help pose the right questions for effective match-making."

Job-seekers fill out profiles on the STEM Boomerang website to help pair them with employers.

"After completing their profiles, we engage regularly with them to promote jobs and connect them with employers," Sandoval-Johnson said. "We have more than 1,000 professionals in the database now."

On the business side, STEM Boomerang currently collaborates with nearly 70 STEM employers across New Mexico to help them find the right talent to fill positions. Employers can advertise through STEM Boomerang, which charges $500 per job posting, with discounts for bulk announcements that contain multiple positions.

"We help employers seek job candidates through our database and our algorithms," Sandoval-Johnson said. "We enable personal interaction and direct communication. ... And we don't overwhelm employers with bundles of résumés, but choose five or 10 people we know are qualified for each position advertised."

All services are free for STEM professionals. That includes individual and group coaching on résumé writing, interview skills and job-matching.

"These are highly skilled applicants, but many need help highlighting specific qualifications they have that are important to hiring managers," Werner-Washburne said. "We help them pull out those skills in their résumés and during interviews."

Recently hired professionals say STEM Boomerang offered a critical bridge to jobs in New Mexico.

Cullen Roth — who earned an undergraduate degree in math from UNM and a Ph.D. in quantitative genetics from Duke University in North Carolina — said STEM Boomerang provided the connections he needed to land a job this year at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"Without STEM Boomerang, I wouldn't have gotten this job," Roth told the Journal. "They helped me laser-focus my résumé for the positions I applied to. There were other positions I could have taken out of state, but STEM Boomerang was really the only reason I was able to find a job here."

Employers also say STEM Boomerang's services are making recruitment much easier.

STEM Boomerang, for example, provided a list of five candidates this fall to Albuquerque-based biotechnology firm BennuBio Inc., which hired two of them in October, said John O'Rourke, executive in charge of recruiting and hiring biotechnology specialists for the company.

"STEM Boomerang has provided outstanding hires," O'Rourke told the Journal.

"They really tailor the people and résumés based on my needs. They have a great database of people who are either here in New Mexico or who want to come back to New Mexico."

Many high-tech startups around the state now rely on STEM Boomerang. It's helped Albuquerque-based Build with Robots fill numerous positions since 2019. And NTxBio — which recently opened a high-tech research and manufacturing center for pharmaceuticals in Rio Rancho — now has eight positions posted with STEM Boomerang.

"Some companies have actually created positions for people we've introduced them to," Werner-Washburn said.

STEM Boomerang remains focused on New Mexico. But it expects to begin licensing its online matchmaking system and strategy for use by institutions in other states next year.

Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at krobinson-avila@abqjournal.com.

Get a tech job

To participate in STEM Boomerang's Dec. 9 career fair, visit www.boomerang-nm.com, or send an email to info@stemboomerang.org.

For more general information about STEM Boomerang, visit www.stemboomerang.org

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