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University-Industry Engagement Advisor

Program seeks to convince UNM grads to ‘boomerang’ to hometown jobs

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: February 13th, 2019

Sometimes, it seems, you can almost do “too good a job” at helping tech-oriented university graduates pursue successful careers. The problem you see, is that many of the high prestige universities where graduate school can lead to desirable jobs may be in another state, creating a “brain drain” back home, and losing the potential benefit of a large number of innovators and start-up founders.

Maggie Werner-Washburne, PhD, regents’ professor emeritus in biology at the University of New Mexico, not only recognized the problem but also decided to do something about it. The result is her highly successful STEM Boomerang program.

“I had been to Stanford and worked at Harvard and MIT, and I knew what it took for young kids to go to elite schools,” she says. “I had a lab, and did a very successful mentoring program — we taught emotional intelligence, and building and sustaining teams.”

She was proud of her “great students,” but during a local business reception two summers ago she listened to complaints about a lack of potential high-tech employees in the local workforce. “I had people all over the country who were really great, but these people did not know them,” says Werner-Washburne. “Ours was actually an inverted brain drain state, and I realized I had actually contributed to that because I wanted the students I worked with to have every opportunity. They went to these great labs, moved up, and have done very well.”

She decided to conduct a survey, using the database she had created of all the students (over 400) who had been in her program. “We had stayed in touch for 10-15 years,” she notes. “I asked, if we did this event, would you want to consider New Mexico for a career? Would you come back? Once we hit 80, I thought it was a good number (about 200 people responded in all). I knew what the students did … and I knew that 50% were interested in getting jobs then or in a year.”

One of her goals was to make sure the event would be a benefit to all who showed up — her former students and the businesses and national labs in the area. In order to do that, she started working with all the economic development groups she could find to get to meet businesses. “I had federal money for programs, but I also had money from the university, which I used for the first year,” she says. “We brought back 115 young STEM professionals — 75% from out of state. We had 34 companies including national labs.”

One of the people she reached out to was Elizabeth (Lisa) J. Kuuttila, CEO and chief economic development officer of STC.UNM, the tech transfer arm of The University of New Mexico.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Kuuttila says. Very often, she notes, these students actually want to be in their home state. “They’ve been somewhere else, they realize how great New Mexico is, but they have no clue how to search for STEM opportunities they’re well suited for,” Kuuttila observes.

To say the initial program was a success would be understating it, reports Werner-Washburne. “It ended up being a two-and-one-half-day ‘Woodstock,’” she says. “I knew they’d fall in love with our young STEM professionals. These were PhD students; picture something that happened in San Francisco happening in New Mexico – growing in a way that maintains who we are, what is precious to us. We needed to seed these people into the highest levels of management in the state.”

A detailed article on the boomerang program appears in the January issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, along with our entire 11-year archive of best practices and success strategies for TTOs, CLICK HERE.

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