NNSA Los Alamos Field Office Manager Michael Weis, left, chats with Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thom Mason and Rep. Christine Chandler following Mason’s State of the Laboratory keynote address Wednesday morning at Buffalo Thunder Resort. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory director Dr. Thom Mason, during his State of the Laboratory address at a community conversation event Wednesday morning at Buffalo Thunder Resort, said the most recent analysis shows that the amount contributed to the state economy by Lab activity is $3.1 billion. He said the Lab’s impact on New Mexico has been growing each year and is expected to continue to grow.
Mason said that amount takes various forms including $1.3 billion in payroll. He said subcontracting for the fiscal year ending last September saw the Lab awarding $696 million in contracts to New Mexico companies, many of which are small businesses.
“For the current fiscal year, our payments of New Mexico Gross Receipts Tax are looking like they will be over $100 million,” Mason said. “If you add up the whole economic impact of the Lab employees and subcontracts and follow on economic activity there are about 24,000 jobs that the Lab is directly or indirectly responsible for in the state of New Mexico.”
He said the Lab has been hiring at a rate of about 1,000 a year, including 1,250 new employees last fiscal year, which he said is representative of the sustained growth at the Laboratory.
“Roughly half of those new hires are replacing people who are retiring. The other half are representative of some of the growth we are experiencing. The world right now is actually becoming a kind of a scary place and that means that the national security mission that we support has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress,” Mason said.
He added that of the 1,250 new employees, roughly 75 percent of them are from New Mexico.
“I think there’s a perception that somehow Los Alamos is just hiring people from other places. In fact, although we do hire nationwide, the majority of people we hire for new jobs are from within New Mexico. About 31 percent of regular/term employees have at least one degree from a New Mexico college or university and 41 percent of our employees are people who grew up and went to school in New Mexico and want to stay in the state, build their careers and grow their families,” Mason said.
Mason is cautious about predicting the future for the LANL budget but noted that there has been sustained growth in the appropriation since FY2017.
“We now know the budget request for FY2021 and as you may have seen in some of the coverage in the press, there’s actually a substantial increase proposed in the National Nuclear Security Administration which is the primary sponsor of activities at Los Alamos and the NNSA budget for the Lab is proposed to increase by about $1 billion,” he said. “Of course this is still an estimate because that’s only the first part of the appropriations process. The administration makes a proposal and Congress now has to weigh in.”
Mason said the Lab has significant needs in terms of infrastructure and the efforts to build up the manufacture capability to 30 pits a year by 2036. He said 1,250 people have been brought in in anticipation of the growth being seen in the budget request and that the Lab has been working hard on a training and workforce pipeline to handle that growth.
Mason said the Lab celebrating its 75th anniversary was exciting but that the flip side is that there are a lot of facilities that need to be significantly renovated or replaced. He mentioned two parking structures and an office building as well as building weather enclosures at the He said With people at the cutting edge of science and technology we need to be providing appropriate facilities. Some of the projects are not depending on the appropriation, they are shovel in the ground. Two parking structures, weather enclosures at the the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility which has been challenged by being exposed to the elements. Mason said there’s a lot of discussion on pit production and how important that mission is but that there are facility needs across the whole campus.
Mason also spoke about what Lab employees are doing “to make this a better place for live and come to work and prosper”. He said every year the Lab has a giving campaign that allows employees to sign up for a payroll deduction that then is directed to some worthy cause. He said the giving program has been going on at the Lab for many years. One of the changes Triad made is that they wanted to focus on the communities in which Lab employees live and work so they doubled the matching funds Triad gives to roughly 50 cents on the dollar and if it’s targeted within the seven- county region, there is a 1.5 multiplier on the contribution.
“As a result , what we’re seeing is about 90 percent of the employee giving campaign stays within local organizations because we know there are needs in this community . There are many that are less fortunate than those of us who have the good fortune to work at the Lab and we want to do our part to help out,” Mason said.
In addition to those financial contributions, he said the Lab has a lot of people who give of their time and their expertise.
“We have a particular emphasis on so called STEM education – the disciplines we rely on to do our core mission – and we had 3,868 volunteer hours devoted to STEM education last year,” Mason said.
He noted that Lab employees provided more than 14,000 meals for last year’s the holiday food drive.
“There are many ways that we define our positive impact. Probably one of the most significant is the Los Alamos Employee Scholarship Fund in partnership with the LANL Foundation which awarded $773,950 in scholarships in 2019 that facilitated educational advancement across the whole region. We also provided a grant of $600,000 to the LANL Foundation in 2019. The reason for all this is we can only be successful if we are surrounded by thriving communities. We want to do everything we can to help with that,” he said.
Mason also discussed the Lab’s partnerships with economic development organizations and educational institutions in the region including a program for training Radiological control technicians through Northern New Mexico College in Espanola.
Explaining how important the RCT program has been, Mason said when he arrived at LANL with a new leadership team, one of the things they were worried about was that the Laboratory was really challenged by the shortage of RCTs which was impacting mission work.
“At that time I think the statistic was that 25 percent of the work orders at PF4 that were targeted to be executed were delayed because of the lack of availability of an RCT. Today that’s less than 1 percent and the reason is because we have more RCTs – it’s just that simple. So, from our point of view this had been a great success – a great partnership,” he said.
Mason spoke of changes in how subcontracts are implemented involving a revised approach to working with construction companies, particularly small businesses, enabling them to go after larger bodies of work for a duration which will allow the companies to make investments in both equipment and their training their staff.
“We have pretty high expectations for work in terms of quality and safety and we want to make sure that those businesses that we work with are able to invest in training and educating their workforce so that they perform to those high standards,” Mason said, adding that the Lab has some $5 billion in construction projected over the next five years.
Attendees at the event participated in roundtable discussions facilitated by Lab employees. LANL hosts the community conversations quarterly.