Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Stephen Skelton graduated from Northern New Mexico College’s plumbing program at its El Rito campus in 1985. Now, he’s one of the program’s first instructors as it returns to course schedules this fall.
Skelton, who runs his own plumbing company, said that finding qualified journeymen in northern New Mexico can be difficult and that he hopes this program will change that.
“They’re just few and far between,” he said.
But exactly when students will be able to take full advantage of El Rito’s plumbing program, as well as those for pipefitters and electricians, is up in the air.
Voters approved a mill levy last November that will generate more than $2 million a year to fund plumbing, pipefitting and electrician programs at Northern’s historic El Rito campus, which closed in 2015.
To make the levy happen, the college formed a branch campus consisting of five local school districts – Española, Pojoaque, Mesa Vista, Chama Valley and Jemez Mountains – the first of its kind in the state. In exchange, the college would provide transportation to high school students to take advantage of the trade courses.
Members of multiple school boards saw the branch campus as providing more opportunities for students, who could potentially get work at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Many have also emphasized the lack of any trades programs in the area, which some speculate could be a reason many move to other areas for work.
But now, community members may have to wait to see the benefits of the new program.
Like other colleges, Northern has recently shifted its courses to online-only, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. College President Richard Bailey said all trade courses are currently online, as administrators originally planned.
Those classes primarily consist of theoretical coursework, where students will discuss code, tools and other aspects of their applied trade.
“However, the trades aren’t really best taught that way,” said John Ussery, El Rito’s program director.
He said vital experience is gained through more hands-on courses, where students gain firsthand experience and have the ability to learn in a controlled environment where mistakes don’t really matter.
“It’s the ability to make those mistakes that really teaches you something,” Ussery said. “You have to get out there.”
Those all-important hands-on courses are set to start in January. However, that’s only if conditions surrounding the pandemic allow it.
“We are pushing to make sure we are ready to engage in that, if it is safe to do so,” Bailey said.
Frank Loera, chair of the branch campus, said the pandemic has already set back plans surrounding the program and the staff are working tirelessly to catch up.
“The pandemic really set things behind,” Loera said. “It even set back the hiring of my position.”
While classes remain virtual for now, the college continues working on refurbishing the historic El Rito campus. Loera said plumbing in some buildings are cracked and needs to be replaced. New floors and paint are also needed in many future classrooms and labs.
The college is also planning on reopening dorm rooms to future students when it’s safe to do so.
Bailey emphasized the branch campus will be ready for in-person classes next semester, whether they happen or not. However, he said the safety of students, faculty and community members come first.
“Once we are through this pandemic, we don’t want the community waiting on the college to open,” Bailey said. “If the pandemic continues and if we are not in a safe position to start up these classes in January, then we will continue to monitor.”
Ussery agreed that in-person classes could not happen until there is as little risk in doing so as possible.
“Any risk at all may be too high,” he said. “So we are somewhat dubious.”
The college recently had its first confirmed case of COVID-19, although the student was not on campus.
Faculty have already begun planning for alternatives in the event that in-person classes must be postponed. That includes placing students in active work sites to gain that firsthand experience, an option Ussery said could be difficult to coordinate.
“It’s hard to know what tasks apprentices will have to do at a specific time,” he said.
Exactly when any postponement of in-person courses will be official remains uncertain, but many higher education institutions have already begun planning their course schedules for next semester.
Despite any future delays, the demand for trades programs in northern New Mexico remains high. Around 130 students are currently participating in apprenticeship programs, set up through partnerships between the college and local trade unions.
Loera said he’s pleased with the current enrollment and that he believes it will increase even more once the full program becomes available to students and community members.
And as community members wait, property taxes related to the programs will still be collected, which Bailey said started happening in May.
Property taxes are based on the assessed value of a home, which is one-third of the property’s market value. On a home with a market value of $300,000 and an assessed value of $100,000, homeowners can expect to pay $200 per year, or $16.67 per month, more in property taxes from the two-mill increase.
It’s with this in mind, along with the large number of people who voted for the mill levy, that Bailey said motivates him and his staff to ensure these programs are provided.
“This is what our community has asked us to do,” Bailey said. “Our hearts are fully committed to making this happen – in a safe and healthy way.”