Workforce panelists speak at the broadband conference on May 24, 2023. From left to right: Lenelle Sernam, Tamara Rosenberg, Kim Sekaquaptewa, Kris Swedin, Sarita Nair and Shara Montoya. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Tamara Rosenberg successfully wrote a grant to get Luna County $75,000 to help set up high-speed internet for rural New Mexicans.
The problem? There isn’t much of a workforce to pay to get broadband going.
“We don’t have enough people with skill sets to make the materials, to install the materials, to know how to use the materials,” she said on a panel during the New Mexico Broadband Summit. “That’s where we really struggle.”
While much of the discussion at the summit was about the upcoming opportunities the state will have to increase internet access and the millions in federal dollars soon to be headed toward these projects, there is a looming concern that the workforce issues Rosenberg faces will soon be a statewide problem.
There is already a worker shortage affecting people’s ability to make the internet accessible in New Mexico, said Rosenberg, who is a business advisor at Western New Mexico University.
The U.S. Department of Commerce is supposed to announce how much money New Mexico will get for broadband at the end of June. State officials expect it’ll be hundreds of millions of dollars.
Even with that money to come in for projects, a lack of workers causes headaches for local communities trying to set up brand new infrastructure.
Rosenberg said the people who are setting up the broadband in Luna County are “completely overwhelmed” with their overly large workload already.
“They’ve got more work than they have hours to complete,” she said.
Other communities with federal broadband grants like Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos are also struggling to find people to set up internet, in addition to dealing with obstacles of supply chain issues.
Kris Swedin is a dean at Santa Fe Community College. She told Source NM she doesn’t think the broadband worker shortage is a big issue now, but it will be in the future if more people don’t start getting trained soon.
Even students can get certified to do the work.
Swedin told summit attendees during a panel that Santa Fe Community College recently held a one-week fiber optic technician training course where students got certifications recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor that are good for three years and can be renewed.
That was just the first training and more will come in the future around New Mexico, she said. The college will have another free week-long training in June.
New Mexico State University also offers fiber optic courses, with future trainings happening in June and October.
And even people younger than college students are getting trained to work in technical positions to help ramp up internet infrastructure.
Shara Montoya is the career technical education director at Tularosa Municipal Schools and said the schools offer a program where students can get paid to work in computer-related jobs.
“My focus is to talk about the role of schools and how schools can promote opportunities for students to create digital equity in New Mexico,” she said.
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Swedin said people should be getting trained in a broad variety of tech-related skill sets. She asked the broadband companies that filled the room at the summit to communicate with educators what other skills internet experts need to have, such as digital literacy or safety certifications.
“Fiber optic alone is not a skill unless it’s supported by other skills,” she said.
All of these skills should be paid for, too, said Lenelle Sernam. She’s a 19-year-old working for Teeniors, a technology support service where teenagers and young adults help seniors understand how to navigate the internet.
“If you know something, you shouldn’t just be expected to teach it for free,” Sernam said.
State leadership agrees. Sarita Nair is the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions secretary and moderated the panel at the broadband summit. She said it’s important to pay people for the work that they’re doing.
Nair said her department has apprenticeship funds from the Legislature that can help businesses pay interns for internet-related work.
Although lawmakers put aside millions of dollars in 2022 for youth apprenticeships, the Legislative Finance Committee noted in April that the Workforce Solutions Department hadn’t used any of the funds nearly a year later.
Sernam said jobs like those at Teeniors, which don’t necessarily require a certification, will really help New Mexicans in this transition to setting up good internet around the state.
A similar business, Mama Cibernéticas, helps teach parents how to use the internet. Founder Maria Chaparro said local businesses like these are key to solving an issue that speakers repeatedly brought up at the conference — the sustainability of broadband after the infrastructure grants are gone.
Chaparro said grassroots organizations are a reliable source of work that broadband companies should invest in. She said these local New Mexicans will help sustain broadband by explaining the benefits of the internet to people who don’t regularly use it and educating people on how to use it.
“This problem has a solution if you just invest in us,” she said.
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