Connecting community members with college and career pathways

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Rebecca Estrada understands importance of educating the community for an educated workforce

June 22, 2022

2022-06-21 News Standard Article Feature@2x
Rebecca Estrada

Rebecca Estrada knows just how much education can change someone’s life and has dedicated her career to supporting and uplifting other people.

Estrada works at Los Alamos National Laboratory as the higher education and workforce development specialist in the Community Partnerships Office. She routinely coordinates with the Lab’s Human Resources Department and the Partnerships and Pipelines Office to identify workforce needs and coordinate with regional education institutions—like Santa Fe Community College, University of New Mexico-Los Alamos, Northern New Mexico College, UNM-Taos, Luna Community College and New Mexico Highlands University--to foster accessible, affordable training programs that lead local students down the pathway to jobs at the Lab or beyond.

With a labor force of nearly 13,000 people, an expanding mission and numerous employees reaching retirement age, the Laboratory projects it will be hiring about 1,200 new employees per year over the next three years. While the Lab has a well-deserved reputation for hiring talent from across the nation and around the globe, what most people don’t know is that each year, around half of its new hires are New Mexicans. What’s more, 30% of the Lab’s employees have at least one degree from a New Mexico institution.

That’s where Estrada comes in. Her focus is connecting New Mexicans with the education programs that lead to Lab jobs. Along with her co-workers in CPO — who work in philanthropy, economic development, K-12 education and higher education — Estrada focuses each day on partnerships and asking what the Lab can do better to be a contributing member of the community.

Often, the solution is short-term credentials and training programs for highly skilled, in-demand technicians. But it’s also about changing the narrative of who you have to be and what kind of credential you need to work at the Lab. “This idea that you have to have an engineering degree, that you have to be a Ph.D. scientist, has been a huge barrier in getting people to apply to the Laboratory,” Estrada says. She’s optimistic that the tide is turning for the better.

Another misconception is that these workforce pipelines lead to Lab jobs only. “The jobs resulting from these education partnerships start at the Lab, but they don’t have to end there,” Estrada explains, citing that positions in demand at Los Alamos are also in demand at the 16 other national laboratories and at science and technology institutions across the country.

Serving underserved communities

Estrada grew up in and around Alamogordo, raised by parents from Mexico. She is not only the first person in her family to attend college, but also the first to earn a master’s degree.

“It was always really important to me to make sure that what I was doing was serving where I came from,” Estrada says. As she furthered her education, she grew to realize that it wasn’t just about her community — there are other communities of students facing many of the same challenges she and her family had faced. “And so, you want to work the system and the structure to try to remove those barriers.”

As her education progressed (she’s earned a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from New Mexico State University and a master’s degree in the same subject from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is currently in a doctoral educational leadership and administration program with NMSU) and she gained more experience, she began to understand the bigger picture: the metaphorical landscape that students from underserved communities live in, and the research showing the benefits of diversifying both college campuses and institutional workforces. “Diversity, equity and inclusion work has always been pretty near and dear to my heart,” Estrada says.

Estrada started her career in Colorado but missed home and wanted to bring what she’d learned back to New Mexico. After returning to the Land of Enchantment, Estrada worked at Santa Fe Community College for more than a decade, still in recruitment and retention, focusing on community relationships.

“Rebecca is an enthusiastic professional who values the local community,” says Margaret Peters, vice president for academic and student affairs at SFCC. “During her many years here, she was the embodiment of our mission to empower students and strengthen community. We are fortunate to be able to continue to work with Rebecca in her current role.”

Being better neighbors, breaking down barriers

Now, Estrada focuses on the Lab’s relationships with the six regional higher education institutions and developing partnerships for the recruitment of prospective employees, as well as formal pipeline programs.

“The idea is that if we all work together to build enough workforce for the entire region,” Estrada says, “then we’re serving everybody’s needs, not just Los Alamos’. We really want to be good neighbors.”

After several years at the Lab, she’s still seeing the possibilities expand.

“Rebecca is incredible at finding those win-win solutions. It may be her superpower,” says Kathy Keith, CPO director. “More importantly, she’s really good at building trust, and that’s what makes these programs successful. In the end, we all want those students to be successfully employed in the workforce. That’s the key to Rebecca’s motivation—she believes deeply and passionately in helping students. That’s her commitment.”

Workforce development to support the Lab, the region and the state

Rebecca also represents the Lab on the Northern Area Local Workforce Development Board — part of the state’s workforce system that helps direct and leverage federal workforce funds to support individuals through workforce programs. That can take a lot of different forms — for instance, developing new registered apprenticeship programs and working with unions, or partnering with higher education institutions to create micro-credentials or accelerated programs to strengthen the workforce, to the benefit of both the state and the Lab.

“Rebecca has been a great addition to the workforce board,” says Yolanda Montoya-Cordova, deputy secretary of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. “Her leadership and commitment to workforce development have been tremendous. NMDWS appreciates her expertise and, above all, her willingness to support a workforce system designed to meet the needs of individuals with barriers to employment.”

As the Lab’s representative on the workforce board, Rebecca helps facilitate conversations between the Lab, the state and college partners about how to use those workforce funds to the greatest benefit of the community.

Looking to the future of the workforce

“There really is so much opportunity for people to get a whole different kind of career,” says Estrada.

She’s helping the Laboratory rise to the occasion, especially in two areas of need: radiological control technicians and engineering machinists.

“In a lot of ways our work is young,” she admits. “But we have some early wins in terms of the RCT program.”

RCTs are integral to the success of much of the Lab’s national security work because they help protect employees who work with plutonium and other radioactive materials. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, radiation control technicians require two to two-and-a-half years of specialized training and are in demand nationwide, with a median salary of $61,370.

Here in northern New Mexico, the Lab partnered with NNMC in 2019 to help meet its growing demand in radiation protection.

“While Northern’s associate of applied science in radiation protection has been in place for quite some time, Rebecca played a significant role in expanding the Laboratory’s partnership with the college and developing the cohort program that funds students’ tuition, books and time in the program,” says Stephanie Archuleta, who leads the Radiation Protection Division. “She has been instrumental in facilitating good working relationships with our local colleges and community partners.”

Since 2019, the Lab has hired 15 graduates of the NNMC cohort program as full-time employees. There are 11 students in the current cohort, and the Lab plans to get 10 or more new students started in the fall.

And that success is paving the way for more: The cohort program model with Northern is being used at Santa Fe Community College now, too, for training engineering machinists, who fix and fabricate precision metal parts. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, machinist jobs also require two to two-and-a-half years of specialized training, and the median salary for the job is $47,730 nationwide.

Hope for the future

With her commitment, passion for helping others and belief in continuous learning, Estrada continues to play a key role in strengthening the ties between the Laboratory and surrounding communities.

The best thing about her job?

“I’m learning from everybody I work with,” she says. “It’s a lot of good partners, innovative thinkers and people who all want to do the right thing. I’ve gotten a lot of good mentorship from these partners, and I’m never going to turn that down.”

Learn more about training to be a Radiation Control Technician at Northern New Mexico College.

Learn more about training to be an engineering machinist at Santa Fe Community College.

Learn more about current openings at LANL.