With 11 years invested in Santa Fe Community College’s solar energy program, it came as quite the shock when the college gave Xubi Wilson a letter two weeks ago informing him that his position, along with the solar program, would be discontinued at the end of this school year.
The college says it will ensure all currently enrolled students finish the program, but will not take on future students and will not keep involved professors on staff full time. As the solar program director, Wilson has worked hard to refine and fund the program which he believes will serve the community and state for years to come, given trends in the clean energy industry.
The cuts don’t stop with solar.
The college announced on May 3 that the architectural and interior design, exercise science, hospitality and tourism management programs will also stop enrolling new students in the coming school year.
With the closures comes the layoff of six staff and faculty members, including Wilson. This is the second reduction in a year; the first round of layoffs came in May of 2020.
SFCC President Becky Rowley blames the pressures of low enrollment for her institution’s financial emergency.
The college routinely reviews programs offered for various details such as enrollment, completion rate and job prospects. But the decision to discontinue the solar program came after a “out-of-cycle program review”, which Wilson says offers faculty fewer opportunities to participate. “We didn’t even know we were in an off-cycle program review,” he tells SFR.
Rowley says she communicated to the campus that she was “reviewing everything” over the past year so as to not spark panic in certain programs that had historically low enrollment and completion rates.
On the subject of the solar program, Rowley says: “The bottom line for us is that people are not coming to our program.”
According to a 2017 report from the Solar Training Network, demand for solar workers in New Mexico is second in the nation based on hiring difficulty, training availability and workforce needs. In looking at occupational growth, jobs as solar photovoltaic installers are anticipated to grow by 139% from 2016 to 2026, higher than any other field in the clean energy industry, as reported by New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.
Given these reports, the college’s decision to discontinue the solar program left Wilson and colleagues both perplexed and frustrated.
Asked about the huge predicted growth in the solar industry, Rowley says: “The percentage of increase is high, but the actual numbers are low.” Rowley explains that the credentials offered through the solar program at SFCC do not match the requirements of these positions.
“We do not dispute that solar is likely to be a burgeoning field at some point...even though there may be widespread sale of residential [solar] systems,” Rowley says. “We have to look at the number of people that they’re actually going to hire and a lot of them are just regular construction jobs.”
Yash Morimoto, the associate vice president for planning and institutional effectiveness, acknowledges the enthusiasm around the solar industry, but says there is a disconnect between the actual need for solar workers and people’s interest. “In terms of employment prospects for our students unfortunately the numbers are not adding up,” Morimoto tells SFR
For students who have already enrolled in the closed programs, the college says they will offer “teach-out options,” meaning students can complete the coursework to receive the associated-credential with these programs.
Another concern of Wilson’s is the integrated nature of the solar program in the larger framework in the School of Trades, Advanced Technologies and Sustainability. Students enrolled in a related field may need to take courses that fall under the umbrella of the solar program.
“We are committed to offering the courses that are important to the other programs we have at the college,” says Margaret Peters, vice president for academic and student affairs.
With only five years from retirement, Wilson would like to stay on at the college. But his concerns do not center around himself. “I’m worried for the community, and the program and my students,” Wilson says. “I think there are opportunities for the college to serve the community by keeping the program. And if there are things that need to be changed, let’s talk about that.”