I have been keeping a secret for over 15 years now: I telework. That’s right. I work full-time, and of the 20-some employees and consultants in the company which I own and oversee, only two are located in New Mexico. Over 80 percent of my work is with the Department of the Navy, which is (obviously) out of state. I still have clients who don’t realize I ever left the DC metro area thanks to regular monthly travel up until this February. For a lot of us, remote working is pretty easy. As a specialized consultant, all you need is access to an airport and an internet connection.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced even more people into home offices whether it was their idea or not. In fact, as the virus loosened its grip in August and September of this year, large employers in expensive areas like the Bay Area and New York City started offering incentives to get their employees back in the office. And I’m not sure if the federal government will ever get a majority of its workforce back inside taxpayer-funded cubicles.
Think about that for a minute. In New Mexico, it will be months or even years before global demand brings our oil, gas and mining industries back to pre-2020 levels. What we do have are really lovely small towns around the state with lower costs of living and all the natural beauty we already know about. We even have reasonable access to major hub airports with either a daily commuter flight, or a drive to Albuquerque or El Paso (that is, if business travel ever becomes a thing again). Let’s snag our share of the teleworkers.
What do we need to attract the rising stars of finance and tech to the Land of Enchantment? A few incentives would be nice, along with a targeted campaign building on the success of New Mexico True. For instance, home ownership is beyond the reach of many employees under 35 in the hot hiring markets like DC, New York and Silicon Valley. Not here. Offer a break (a discount, not an elimination) on property tax for the first three years to seal the deal. Shoot, folks can even build a house with access to their own airstrip right here in Edgewood. That’s not going to be attainable to most up-and-coming Goldman Sachs associates in tony Westchester County, N.Y.
We can get the teleworkers. But we have to keep them. And that will require two interconnected efforts: broadband infrastructure and a no-kidding competitive public education system. Technology and learning are inextricably interwoven and remote learning is making that abundantly clear. And we have a problem in New Mexico. According to the 2020 Broadband Now rankings New Mexico ranks 49th in the country for broadband access (Texas is 8th, Colorado 25th, Arizona 36th). As a state we do poorly in all categories measured for the ranking: terrestrial wired access; access to affordable plans; and average download speed.
We have known for decades that we have a public education crisis in New Mexico. Whether it’s early childhood resources, high school attrition, social promotion, or lack of classroom resources, we have heard officials lament our educational lacks for so many years we can recite them ourselves. Yet actual reform or progress moves at a snail’s pace while children continue to cycle through the system year after year. And poor access to technology hampers everyone’s learning—even if their families opt out of the public education system and homeschool them.
Here’s a wish list for bold and simple acts New Mexico could take in 2021:
-Increase classroom pay and simplify teacher certification for individuals with advanced degrees;
-Implement merit pay for top-performing teachers, to be awarded at the district and school level;
-Accept that the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years were losses and allow everyone currently enrolled in K-12 in New Mexico the opportunity to make up a year;
-Fund rural broadband infrastructure for areas with homes with no wired options (this includes seeking out Federal grant opportunities);
-Bring broadband rates and actual download speeds under PRC scrutiny;
-Expand the #NMTrue campaign to bicoastal teleworkers.
We don’t need to further regulate extractive industries or write up complex plans to incentivize solar or wind power. There are thousands of highly-compensated workers who could become New Mexico taxpayers in 2021 or 2022; we have to show them we want them. And we have to act now to keep them once they get here.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at email@example.com.