Frank Rene Lopez, For the Sun-News Published 12:56 p.m. MT Nov. 11, 2017

“What about our economy?” a friend asked. “Jobs are scarce and the unemployment rate is high.” In fact, the unemployment rate in New Mexico is the second highest in the country at 6.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But . . . what if. . .

What if we could build our local economy from scratch? What would happen if we examined our local assets and built the economy using our existing local resources? First, we could focus on helping small businesses start, grow and thrive. Second, we would develop our people. One question we should ask ourselves: what is the best way to develop our people?

I want to propose that we begin building our economy by building brains! Let’s build a highly supportive infrastructure for our people from the moment of birth. The infants born today are our workforce tomorrow. In Doña Ana County, over 2,800 babies are born every year. This is truly an amazing opportunity for our community. If we support mothers and children at the beginning, then we can transform these 2,800 babies into awesome little human beings, and eventually a powerful workforce.

It’s during these first five years of life that a child develops their capacity to learn and the brain potential is nourished. This is the time we can literally build brains. According to Dr. James Heckman, a distinguished science professor at the University of Chicago, an investment in early childhood results in a “7 to 10 percent per year return on investment based on increased school and career achievements.”

 Brain development depends on experiences and activities. This means that activities, such as sensory, motor, emotional and cognitive – literally shape the brain. The ability to communicate and relate to others are the soft skills employers find highly valuable in a recruit. The required soft skills, are in fact, developed before the child enters the kindergarten classroom. Just like building a house, brains are built upon a strong foundation. Early childhood care and education is that foundation.

If we want to build the economy, we need to build our most important asset – our people. Too often there is an assumption that good workers are produced in high school and college. Many businesses claim there are not enough qualified workers or they don’t have the soft skills or people skills needed to succeed in the workforce. Up until now, we have failed at building brains. How do we build the workforce that we need to compete with other states?

There is an amazing group of people Doña Ana County whose work focuses on building brains—the Early Childhood Education Coalition. It has already accomplished several exceptional goals, including: (1) developing a county-wide plan for early childhood care and education; (2) hiring a county-wide coordinator;(3) conducting a data driven, gap analysis on Access to Early Childhood Education; (4) developing tools and processes for full integration of early childhood services, and (5) laying the groundwork for creating a mobile (traveling) children’s museum and parent information center.

As a community, we have an incredible opportunity to positively affect the lives of thousands of children. More importantly, our county has the power to establish the foundation for a strong economy. It begins with providing optimal support for every child born into our community and giving each child resources that allow for building their brains for a bright future.

Frank Rene Lopez is the executive director of Ngage New Mexico, a nonprofit organization that supports the education initiative called SUCCESS Partnership. See and