Sandia Labs Director Steve Younger addressed the New Mexico State Legislature’s interim Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee last month, highlighting the Labs’ accomplishments and commitment to the state.
Committee members and speakers focused heavily on job creation, the economy and the challenge to create and keep a strong STEM workforce in New Mexico. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-Bernalillo, asked Steve for help from the Labs.
“I really, strongly feel that the Labs could play a stronger role in helping to bring a more systemic approach to how our state addresses these issues,” Stansbury said, emphasizing STEM and career pipeline issues. “I often say one of New Mexico’s best exports besides green chile is our people. We export our people, and there are a lot of scientists and engineers who actually leave this state and then can’t find jobs when they come home. How can we do a better job to make sure that our own smart people stay here as well, and get back into these jobs?”
Steve outlined how the Labs currently helps the state, and shared ideas that have been proposed to DOE. He also said state issues are wider than job creation, noting that family stability is something the state needs to work on so kids have better opportunities in school.
“I love New Mexico,” he said, “but we’re a poor state and we need some help. We need the Department of Energy to allow us to use some of our resources to help our state and help the city of Albuquerque deal with some of the problems, because we just can’t do it on our own.”
Steve said a limited number of community service hours are covered by federal funds, and if that number were expanded, it would be good for New Mexico.
State spending, small business programs
At the time of the meeting, Sandia’s projected budget for fiscal year 2019 was $3.75 billion, a jump from the previous year’s $3.3 billion budget, Steve said. In fiscal year 2018, Sandia spent $475 million in New Mexico on subcontracts, procurement purchases and with small businesses, and $1.16 billion on labor in the state.
Regarding technology transfer and work with small businesses, Steve highlighted the Labs’ 187 projects with small business through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program. Three new companies joined the Sandia Science & Technology Park in 2019, and six employees took leave from Sandia to start businesses through the Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology program.
Steve also emphasized recently developed initiatives over the past few years, including the C3 downtown space at the Lobo Rainforest building that has hosted more than 4,000 Sandia employees and community members since it opened in 2017. Supplier Open Houses connected 431 companies with Sandia employees in fiscal year 2019, and a DOE mentor protégé program to help small businesses compete for federal and industry opportunities launched in October.
Steve briefly explained the Labs’ pension and 401(k) programs following a question from Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe. He said Sandia is evaluating current programs and may propose a hybrid program to DOE.
“I think this is important in several ways. First of all, people are not saving enough for retirement, so having that kind of benefit program is important,” he said. “It also puts the national laboratories in a special position and keeps us in a more desirable position to offer a preferable retirement package.”
Leaders are carefully looking at Sandia’s overall benefit package, he said. “We should be the most attractive employer for bright scientists and engineers.”
Strengthening Sandia’s future
Sandia leadership is looking toward the next 20 to 30 years, trying to predict the world’s problems and Sandia’s role, Steve said.
“Some of these problems are just crazy hard in terms of, how do you anticipate future threats?” he said. “There are two ways you can deal with national security threats. You can either anticipate a threat, or deal with it after it’s anticipated you.”
The Labs’ nuclear weapons program is currently busier than it has been in 30 years, Steve said, and Sandia is “exceptionally popular right now” with the Navy, Air Force, Missile Defense Agency and Army, due to the Labs' hypersonics program.
Diversity in the workplace will also remain one of the Labs’ top priorities, Steve said.
“In my opinion, the worst thing you can do in thinking about the future of national security is to get a group of people who look just like me to say, ‘Oh, here’s what the future of geopolitics is and here’s what we ought to be focusing on.’ No,” he said. “We need the broadest set of perspectives that we can get.”
Steve’s address was part of a public hearing that took place Oct. 7, at the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, located in the Sandia Science & Technology Park.
Other public hearing speakers included Patricia Beecher, superintendent of the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired; Stuart Rose, founder of the BioScience Center; Matthew Ennis, chief executive officer of NTxBio, LLC; Murat Okandan, founder and chief technology officer of mPower Technology, Inc.; Jackie Kerby Moore, Sandia technology and economic development manager; and Mariann Johnston, Los Alamos National Laboratory technology engagement and entrepreneurship team lead.