Editorial: Can creative thinking save CNM’s trucking, jewelry programs?

Central New Mexico Community College is considering parking its truck driving trade program because it loses money. And while that may seem a simple decision based on the ledger, serious questions remain over whether the many benefits the program delivers have gotten fair consideration. CNM’s governing board should lay those out and inject some creative thinking before ending a popular program that delivers an affordable path to well-paid jobs.

We get that CNM has to work within its budget, and all of its 181 associate degree and certificate programs are evaluated annually. A committee of representatives from each division of the college considers the college mission, market demand, program economics, and alignment to academic and industry standards. This go-round, 14 were recommended for sunset. But the proposal for two of them — truck driving and bench jewelry — possibly to be offered on a non-certificate basis out of one of CNM’s Ingenuity workforce and training sites received serious pushback from faculty and the community.

Tuesday’s CNM governing board meeting drew about 200 students, graduates and instructors in the two programs. The speakers made it clear they oppose any changes.

We also get that change is hard. But, speaking in support of the two programs, Marissa Juárez, a full-time faculty member, said the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment in the trucking industry will grow 6% in the next 10 years and it makes no sense to scale back a program that provides a crucial service in the nation’s supply chain at a time when there is a nationwide shortage of truck drivers. The bench jewelry program, she said, enriches the local art community and the jewelry-making industry, while creating jobs.

Comments will be considered during a review by CNM’s planning and finance committees before the full governing board takes action. That’s important. The board’s next meeting is May 10. Kudos to Juárez and others who weighed in to provide ample food for thought.

Established more than 30 years ago, the consistently full truck driving program leads the way to a Class A Commercial Driver’s License and a chance to generate “more income than in almost any other field in New Mexico,” said instructor John Morningstar. It takes about 15 weeks and costs participants about $1,600. But Samantha Sengel, CNM’s vice president of workforce and community success, said it runs a yearly deficit of between $450,000 and $600,000.

That’s telling. The program has been “mission critical” enough to operate at a loss for years. What’s changed? With autonomous driving years away, certainly not the demand for these skills. As it is, we have too few programs that can lead to such well-paid jobs. In a state that ranks near the bottom in poverty, these programs are crucial.

Meanwhile, Mathew James Shepardson, owner of Tskies Jewelry in Albuquerque, has hired seven graduates of the bench jewelry program and grown his business. Sengel says the program does not have enough enrollment/graduates.

Two ideas: The new Opportunity Scholarship Act covers tuition for certificate programs. If CNM raises the costs to participants, would the scholarship program cover that? And before state officials complain that’s inappropriate, UNM has already increased its tuition. It seems having the scholarship program pay $5,000 or so is worth giving students the means to start a well-paid career. And are companies willing to underwrite some costs to get a great employee? Innovation may keep these programs alive.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.