Los Alamos National Laboratory director Thom Mason speaks during Wednesday’s Community Conversations event on education and workforce. Screenshot/Los Alamos Reporter
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thom Mason told participants in a LANL Community Conversations virtual event Wednesday dealing with education and workforce, that it’s kind of refreshing to be talking about things that are a little more forward-looking.
“Right now, most of us are focused on the current challenges of the pandemic and today’s topic focusing on education and work force is really about what the future holds and how we can hopefully grow out of this tragic pandemic in a way that makes us stronger, more resilient and more prosperous,” he said.
Mason said the Lab has been in a mode over the last several years of increased hiring driven by two factors.
“One is just the demographics of our workforce. We have people who become retirement eligible. Occasionally those people who are eligible to retire actually do retire and we have to replace them and that’s about half the hiring we’ve been doing – on average over the last four or five years about 500 a year are being hired to replace those that are leaving,” he said.
The other component of Lab hiring has been growth and that accounts for about another 500 new hires a year.
“That growth is associated with new mission responsibilities that we have in support of our national security missions and actually overall growth in the research portfolio that the Lab conducts,” Mason said.
He noted that last year some 1,250 people were hired and that looking back 30 years, that was the highest rate of hiring over that timeframe. He said the jobs at the Lab span a wide range of skills and areas of expertise.
“The one thing they have in common is pretty much any job at the Lab requires some kind of specialized training. Many people might associate the Lab with scientists and engineers but that’s actually only amount 20-25 percent of our permanent workforce. The other 75 percent is everything you need to run a large enterprise so in addition to the large science and engineering background you might expect for the Laboratory, we have people supporting us on the business side and financing, human resources, technicians, skilled trades and occupational medicine,” Mason said. “There’s all kinds of different preparations that go into that and one thing we’ve been working really hard at over the last while is trying to develop partnerships with educational institutions tailored to a training program that meets some of those anticipated needs.”
He discussed a program at Northern New Mexico College to train radiation control technicians which he said is having a very positive impact. He noted that this is a pretty specialized area and the fact that the Lab now has the ability to train students as prospective employees using the equipment that would be used at the Laboratory means they graduate “job ready”.
“That has helped us improve our pipeline in a way that makes our operations more efficient because we’re not plagued with the shortages of personnel that were a problem even as recently as three years ago,” Mason said.
He also discussed a newer program focused on training machinists at Santa Fe Community College, saying he is optimistic that that program will have the same kind of success as the RCT program.
Mason said the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos is working on setting up a program for mechanical engineers to allow Lab employees who may have a two-year associate’s degree to complete the coursework necessary to turn that into a four-year mechanical engineering degree while they’re working at the Lab.
“We recently announced our first joint faculty appointment with New Mexico Tech in Socorro and that’s going to create opportunities for research and graduate students,” he said.
The Lab is also working with area high schools on the building trades which he feels is important because of the increased needs due to the Lab’s infrastructure investments.
“We are expecting to continue to hire about 1,000 a year for the next couple of years as we continue to grow to support our new missions and even beyond that of course, we’re always going to be hiring to replace staff who retire. This is something that’s going to be really important for our future – something that really hasn’t stopped even though we’re experiencing this pandemic our hiring rate for this current fiscal year is pretty much the same as last year’s record hiring rate.” Mason said. “We’re going to come pretty close to that 1,250 that we saw last year.”
He noted that the Lab has obviously had to adapt as everyone else has and can now hire employees virtually and get them trained
“They’re going to be working in telework mode as we try to sustain our momentum and we expect that to keep changing for the next couple of years as we continue to build that workforce for the future,” Mason said.
He said one of the things that has been very encouraging from his point of view is the willingness of the educational institutions around the Lab to work with the Lab to understand what the needs are and ensuring that when students graduate they are equipped for the types of jobs the Lab offers.
“They are good jobs paying living wages. You can raise families and enjoy life here in the beautiful Northern New Mexico community that we live in. The fact that we’re able to do that strengthens our communities but also strengthens the Laboratory and also allows us to execute our missions,” Mason said.