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NNMC’s El Rito campus and Technical Trades Program are coming to life

Committed faculty and students help shape the future of NNMC’s Branch Community College

Revitalizing a century-old legacy campus and creating a new Technical Trades program would be challenge enough for a small institution like Northern New Mexico College (NNMC), but tackling those goals during a pandemic proved even more daunting. That did not deter staff and faculty from reopening the El Rito campus and starting classes for NNMC’s Branch Community College Electrical and Plumbing Technology programs in Fall 2021, the first steps toward fulfilling a promise made to the community that supported the Northern New Mexico College’s Mill Levy.

“We are entering a time in the life of the college and of our country where we understand the need to support vocational and technical education not just in large cities or metro areas but to serve all New Mexico.  You can’t outsource or fix an electrical, plumbing or carpentry issue virtually,” said NNMC President Dr. Barbara Medina. “We at Northern are thrilled to be a part of the work at our legacy campus. We know it’s a place of learning and service to our students and the community at large.”

After a closure of nearly 10 years, getting the El Rito classrooms and labs up to code has been a priority. Supply chain shortages and finding contractors during the pandemic have delayed construction, but progress is being made. Classes launched online in September 2020, during the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Courses for the 2021-2022 academic year are hybrid, with a mix of online and in person classes. Hands-on classes are taught at the El Rito campus, while some lecture courses are scheduled in Española or online. Thirty-five students are attending classes in El Rito this semester, including 26 dual credit students. Another 130 students attend classes at United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 412 facilities in Albuquerque and Los Alamos, which are restricted to Local 412 apprentices. Union students receive the same curriculum as on-campus students.

Both trades programs benefit from strong union connections. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local union 611 has provided consulting, advising and some training for the electrical program. The collaboration with U.A. Local 412 is even stronger. Any student who receives a plumbing certificate from NNMC is accepted into the 412 union through the union’s direct placement program.

“And that’s beautiful, because the 412 serves as a placement service. They get them a job and they continue their education at the 412,” said Dr. Frank Loera, NNMC’s Chair of Technical Trades. “So they get their certificate here, they go to the union, they become an apprentice on their way to being a journeyman in plumbing and pipefitting, they start working and they continue going to school offered through us.”

The opportunity for union membership upon completing a plumbing certificate extends to high school students enrolled in NNMC’s dual credit program from the five school districts included in the mill levy: Española, Pojoaque, Chama Valley, Mesa Vista, and Jemez Mountain School.

NNMC Trades Student and Faculty Perspectives

Current dual credit students include Loal Tucker, a junior at Pojoaque Valley High School. He hopes to complete his Electrical Technology Certificate by the time he graduates.

“I just thought electricity was pretty cool, and I wanted to learn more about it,” Tucker said. “Plus, my stepdad, he’s more into plumbing stuff, so we could work together with him doing the plumbing and me doing the electrical work.”

Dylan Vigil, a senior at Pojoaque, also hopes to have his certificate by the time he graduates.

“My dad was an electrician, so when I had the chance to go into it, especially for free, I was like, yeah,” Vigil said.

One of the advantages of pursuing a trade certificate or degree through NNMC is the accelerated pace of learning.

“I always tell my students they’re learning stuff right now that took me a good two, three years to learn because we’re in an accelerated pace,” said Marvin Romero, a journeyman electrician and instructor in the Electrical Technology program, who learned his skills through an apprenticeship with the union 16 years ago. “And they’re doing great. It’s been really amazing to see them catch on real quick, and they’re running with it. I see the excitement in their eyes when they see the lights turn on or they get something working and it just gets me excited, too, because I remember that feeling.”

Elaine Trujillo is one of Romero’s students. At 54 years old she decided to pursue an Associates of Applied Science degree in Electrical Technology from Northern after living without electricity for more than a year due to the pandemic. This will be her second degree (she holds a bachelor’s in media arts). She commutes 82 miles one way to attend in person classes.

“I got a call back from the program faster than I got a call back from an electrician,” Trujillo said. “And I’m loving it. It just feels good to know that you’re able to help yourself. That’s the main goal. And then once I’m able to help myself, I hope to help other people, especially women like myself that are in this kind of predicament.”

Forty-two-year-old Carlos Baldonado is working toward an Associate of Applied Science, Technical Trades, in plumbing. He plans to take advantage of joining the union when he graduates.

“I was working for the plumber last summer. I got laid off from that job, so I decided to come and try to get my certification,” Baldonado said. “I’m learning a lot. It’s real fun, learning a lot of new stuff.”

Baldonado is one of several students learning from Plumbing Instructor Stephen Skelton, who is both a master mechanic and a journeyman plumber.

“I’m looking forward to some of my students have good paying jobs. I’m going to try to follow up with them when they get their certificate,” Skelton said. “I want to hear good things. I want to hear they’re working for the union or for private plumbing contractors or working toward a journeyman’s card.”

Made Possible through the NNMC Mill Levy and Generous Donors

The Northern New Mexico College Mill Levy is a critical part of making this all happen. Currently, 57 percent of that funding is devoted to El Rito’s operational budget to address infrastructure needs. Twenty-three percent of the mill levy money is spent directly on the technology programs, with the remaining funds committed to integral support units such as student services, information technology, service contracts and the assessments necessary to maintain accreditation. As the campus is restored, operational costs will be reduced and more money will be devoted to the trades programs.

NNMC is working to fill gaps in the Branch Community College budget, which averages $2 million a year. The mill levy brings in approximately $1.5 million. Funding through the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) act has been redirected into the trades programs for the past two years.

New equipment is being purchased with the help of outside donations and supplier discounts. The Walter G. Watts Memorial Fund donated $27,300 to the Electrical Trades program, which is earmarked for a new motor control board. Dr. Ralph (Butch) E. Clark III donated $30,000, which may be applied toward the purchase of a $37,000 CNC laser plasma cutter for the pipefitting program. Dahl Plumbing of Santa Fe arranged a significant discount with Lochinvar for state-of-the art, energy efficient boilers and hot water heaters.

Learn more about what’s happening on Northern’s El Rito campus at the NNMC El Rito Community Meeting, 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Alumni Hall. We will be updating the community on the Mill Levy project, future strategic planning for facilities, and the latest news on our labs and classroom spaces.

Photo: Electrical Technology student Elaine Trujillo bends electrical conduit as her classmate Paul Lucero measures the degree of the curve.

Northern offers over 50 bachelor's, associate and certificate programs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math); Nursing and Health Sciences; Liberal Arts and Humanities; Arts, Film & Media; Business Administration; Teacher Education and Technical Trades.
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