Collaboration, Communication Key To N3B Apprenticeship Programs Through UNM-LA And NNMC


Collaboration and communication are key to the success of workforce development programs involving educational institutions and employers in Northern New Mexico, panel members Mark Russell, Deputy Director of N3B Apprentice Programs, Rick Bailey, President of Northern New Mexico College and Cindy Rooney, Chancellor of the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos said during a virtual webinar last week hosted by the Energy Communities Alliance (ECA).

The ECA is a non-profit, membership organization of local governments adjacent to or impacted by U.S. Department of Energy activities of which Los Alamos County is a member.

Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz, who is treasurer of the ECA board, moderated the New Mexico portion of the webinar. He said he was excited to moderate the session to highlight the power of alliances between employers and educational institutions to address the issue of developing the next generation of well-qualified, well-trained and motivated staff.

Russell explained that N3B came to Los Alamos National Laboratory as a brand new contractor supporting environmental management and has so far been very successful in supporting Northern New Mexico by bringing in more and more programs to help support the company’s core mission. He said N3B is committed to giving back five percent of its earned fee under its contract to the communities and has been able to do that by helping provide educational opportunities as well as civic and economic development.

“We’ve committed as a large corporation coming here to try and retain and build the workforce and really bring in the local support that we need versus some contractors that have struggled in the past finding that workforce,” Russell said. “N3B has taken the initiative to build its own workforce from the community that we’re in. The contribution from the earned fee has been paramount to keeping the programs going.”

Chancellor Rooney explained that the UNM-LA campus is a branch campus community college within the state of New Mexico.

“What that means is that we offer the 100 and 200 level classes, associate degree programs and certificate programs, both associate transfer degrees and AAS degrees, to prepare individuals straight for the workforce,” she said.

Rooney noted that the UNM-LA branch campus has existed since 1980 but the University of New Mexico has had a presence in Los Alamos since the 1950s.

“Our goal has been to serve the community and certainly that means the students, in terms of providing opportunities for them to develop their human capital. We want to illuminate pathways to help the students understand how to get from where they are – maybe it’s fresh out of high school, maybe it’s someone who didn’t graduate from high school that needs to go through an adult basic education program – into a pathway that will lead them into a successful career,” she said. “We clearly need and appreciate the collaborations that exist with others in the community.”

Rooney said there are six higher education institutions that serve the LANL buffering area and that UNM-LA is honored to be one of those six. The campus had some 1,146 students last spring comprised of 48 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Native American and 62 percent overall minority students, she said. Twenty-seven degrees and certificate programs are offered and UNM-LA serves students in all of Northern New Mexico.

President Bailey noted that NNMC is one of four regional comprehensive institutions in the state.

“We are a four year school. We offer certificate, two-year programs and bachelor’s degrees. We do not offer master’s or graduate level programs. Our makeup almost perfectly reflects the demographic makeup of our community. We have two campuses – one in Espanola and one in El Rito. The student population is a little over 1,200 students with 74 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Native American,” he said. “Most are the first people in their family to attend college. Seventy percent are lower socio-economic levels so what we do isn’t just educational, it’s transformative, because with the work that we do we are helping individuals, families and entire communities lift themselves out of poverty. That’s an incredibly exciting and humbling and honored thing to do.”

Russell highlighted N3B’s partner partnerships with UNM-LA and NNMC, first describing two programs at UNM-LA in conjunction with New Mexico Department of Workforce Development – a radiological control technician boot camp and a program for waste processing operators.  He noted that N3B was successful in finding a core team to teach through the college so that students were moved into the workforce within a 12-14 week period of time. The classes were through UNM-LA and the on-the-job training was conducted in the field with N3B’s experienced and qualified staff.

“What was really unique was Dr. Rooney worked with us and we were able to get college credits for these students and a fair number of them want to go further their education and build degrees. N3B, through our own funding or using the Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act, provides an education to those students free of cost to them and they are paid as full-time employees. They are starting to fund their 401ks, they earn a living wage and they get full benefits,” Russell said. “It’s a pretty good opportunity and virtually all of the students who have come into this program are from the Northern New Mexico region.”

He noted that UNM-LA the COVID pandemic meant some changes for the program but that UNM-LA assisted with the technology and the 12-week program that had really been designed to be instructor-led on line, was completed online. Students were able to get out into the field following safety protocols, he said.

The NNMC two-year program for nuclear operators is registered through the state and involves full-time employees who are receiving benefits and earning a living wage. The program was put together in about a year, Russell said, working with through collaboration with the two colleges and the cooperation of Department of Workforce Solutions Sec. Bill McCamley.

On the topic of lessons learned, Rooney discussed the importance of collaboration in getting the right people at the table. Those people included Russell and others from N3B who reached out to the colleges, the Regional Development Corporation and local governments, bringing everybody to the table to start the planning. She also stressed the importance of clear communication as to who was going to be doing what and making sure everybody was benefiting from the arrangement. Designing curriculum and securing funding are part of the discussions that have to take place, she said.

Bailey agreed, saying the reason the colleges work so well together is that he and Rooney are not afraid to take the gloves off once in a while and let each other know when they are doing things well and when they’re not.

“We have that kind of trust and friendship,” Bailey said.

He said when Russell and N3B came to him with the idea of building an apprenticeship program where students were going to apply and actually becoming employees with a pathway to a good paying  job and a retirement plan, he thought it was too good to be true.

“Once I realized that they were serious and it took a while, then I thought, ‘Wow, we’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket here. How do we make the most of it?’” Bailey said. “The biggest lesson learned for me was that things I thought were going to be super easy actually became the hard things and things I thought were going to be the difficult things actually were easier than I thought.”

He mentioned the development of soft skills in students, noting that it had been one of the biggest hurdles for the program.  

Russell noted that from the N3B side there was a pretty big learning curve involved with putting out a job description for an apprentice and screening applicants when they were only required to have a high school education with no experience or college required. He also noted that some working with colleges and meeting the challenges of state approval and accreditation, “sometimes you can’t run as fast as you want to”.

“We need to hire people; we need to get people on board, understanding that if we start them today it’s going to be two years before they finish the program,” Russell said.

He noted that the programs are designed to build a safety culture and depending on what region they come from in the state that may be a small lift or a larger lift.

“We focus on safety and even though we’re training them to be RTCs, waste operators or nuclear operators, the first thing we do is put them into a rotation with environmental safety and health. We’ve got to have safe employees bringing them into an environment like this. We start with those cultural differences. A lot of the world really does not understand the culture of nuclear safety and the hazards that are present,” Russell said. “Taking people that come with zero background in a national laboratory or in waste handling or any kind of nuclear operations has been one of the biggest challenges. We have to step back from our years of experience in either education or nuclear work and say, ‘I’m bringing in a brand new person in that does not have this background. Where do we start?’ I think that’s one of the biggest challenges.”

Izraelevitz asked the panel what is limiting the capacity of the program to address the workforce needs. Bailey said he and Rooney thought it would be a challenge to find interest in the program but that once their institutions illuminated the pathway, generating interest wasn’t the problem.

“I think the sky’s the limit on that. N3B’s putting a lot of skin in the game because not only are they helping to fund these pathways, but they’re also going through the work that it takes to get these people onto their team. My guess what we’re doing is really a pilot. From a corporate standpoint, this is where I become completely clueless, but from a corporate aspect they can say we’ve shown a proof of concept now, here’s what the actual job demand looks like and now we can scale this thing up,” Bailey said.

Russell indicated that the biggest limiting factor is the on-the-job training is a critical aspect for the apprentices due to the hazardous environment and the safety issue. He said a one-to-one ratio is required and although N3B has a qualified and experienced staff of nuclear operators, RCTs and waste operators, many of whom have been at LANL for years, they all have a full-time job to do.

“Taking on an apprentice – teaching them what the Department of Energy stands for and then basically mentoring them and bringing them clear up to a qualification standard is pretty taxing on our fully qualified folks and obviously being a steward of taxpayer dollars we only have so many people so we’re a little limited,” Russell said.

He noted that the program is a little self-perpetuating because the company gets five fully trained operators when five apprentices graduate so the program can continue to expand. He said qualified staff members take on the apprentices by the hand for thousands of hours to bring them up to speed.

“We’ve signed up for 10 years to do this work. We always hope that it will be longer but we’re building that enduring workforce that will serve the DOE community.” Russell said.

Rooney said the program is a demand-driven enterprise so the colleges are looking at the demand given to them by the employers. She said from the campus’s perspective, they also have to maintain their commitment to quality education and accreditation standards which means hiring the right instructors.

In May 2019, Rooney noted that it was decided some sort of boot camp would be best way to meet the needs of the N3B schedule and that the program was in place and finished in the fall semester. She said instructors like Russell were found who met UNM’s accreditation standards and were given letters of academic title.

“Basically we secured instructors by working with N3B to allow their talented individuals to work with our academic divisions and our dean of instruction to make sure that everything was appropriate for delivering academic credit,” she said, adding that there could be a bottleneck in the future if the program gets to a point where it doesn’t have mentors.

Russell noted that N3B has to do workforce projects not only internally to fill the mission and the DOE contract.

“As a new company we’re still a little bit reactive but I will be tell you, our solution from the apprentice program standpoint is constant contact with President Bailey and Chancelor Rooney . When I need help, I ask, and they are the people that provide the answers for me,” Russell said. He added that at N3B, everyone at the company from the president on down has supported and embraced the program,” he said.  

Rooney again stressed the need for clear communication.

“Rick and I have the pleasure of working with N3B and with LANL and we recognize that they are constantly looking at their needs and how to communicate that to the higher education institutions so that we can help them to meet those needs. We realize the needs are fluid; at some level the number of individuals you might need in a spot changes because of the environment, but I think it’s imperative that we keep that open communication,” Rooney said. She said the colleges appreciate Russell and others at N3B for the level of communication they provide so that any problems can be worked through keep doing.

Bailey said there are three things higher education brings to this.

“We have to be nimble, we have to be adaptive and we have to be forward looking. Higher education is a complex system but in terms of workforce, if there are employers in our region who have to hire talent from outside, we feel that we’re not doing our jobs because we should be growing talent from within because of the transformative effective it can have on our communities,” he said. “The nice thing about both of our institutions is that we’re small and nimble and we can adapt…. That’s what we need to do in order to be responsive to our communities.”