Editorial: AFR-APS Teamwork Could Save NM Workforce

You might consider saving things that are only part of a firefighter/emergency doctor’s DNA.

Yes, Albuquerque Fire Rescue’s new Ambassador program was created by dedicated individuals who wanted to give back to the community by encouraging the next generation of their profession. But if scaled up, it has the potential to help revive our state’s struggling labor force participation and reduce our high poverty rates.

Currently, just over half of NM’s working-age population, 56.7%, is currently working or seeking work. According to federal government websites, an estimated 382,798 of 2,076,524 New Mexicans live in poverty — about one in five, or 18.4%. And nearly half the state’s population is on Medicaid, the state’s health insurance program for low-income earners.

One of the main reasons for all of this is that New Mexico has the third highest high school dropout rate in the nation. According to eric.ed.gov, more than 7,500 New Mexico students drop out each year.

So when a classroom visit from someone like AFR Capt. That’s encouraging to Chris Sotelo, a 15-year firefighter veteran and graduate of Manzano High School, who gets students thinking about career options. If there are practical tips to help them streamline their journey and avoid frustrating bureaucratic hurdles that derail their goal, that’s promising. And if it can tap into a student’s interests and put them on a path to financial independence and security, that’s a victory for the student, the mentor, and the local and state economy.

Fire Chief Gene Gallegos says, “The hope is that one day … these young minds will want to join the city of Albuquerque’s public safety teams — and most importantly, possibly the Albuquerque Fire Rescue.” It’s working. Manzano senior Juliana Hielkema says that although she actually wanted to be a firefighter, Soleto “really spoke to me about his passion” during his visit. I think that would be great for me because I want to do something important and impactful.”

The connection is awesome. But why stop there?

Last semester, Albuquerque Public Schools and AFR conducted the ambassador program at the district’s comprehensive schools. When possible, it brings firefighters into the schools they graduated from and makes them as approachable to students as they once were in their shoes.

And it sounds like a program that wouldn’t just work for public safety professionals like firefighters and paramedics (as well as law enforcement and correctional officers); but also in the medical field, from doctors and nurses to blood and X-ray technicians and pharmacists; to countless STEM careers and more.

Critics might say this is little more than the career days of yore, and we’d reply, if it works, so what? As Hielkema’s reaction demonstrates, there are few things more inspiring for a young person than to meet someone who makes a good living and does what one wants to do when it comes time to “grow up.” And if they can give you tips, shortcuts, etc. to get you on your way, all the better.

In October, panellists at an event sponsored by NAIOP New Mexico, the state’s largest commercial real estate organization, emphasized that a skilled workforce from an early age is critical to the growth of the local economy. They explained that what this means in practice is strong public-private partnerships between local schools and private companies to guide students to the career opportunities available in the state.

So this is about overseeing the AFR APS Ambassador program and expanding it to other careers and other districts – for the future of our students and our local and state economies.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is not signed as it represents the opinion of the newspaper and not that of the authors.