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Poco Windy #22: “Rural Population Trends: Wind Energy Jobs Impact on Rural Communities”

A rural New Mexico newspaper reported earlier this year that “The San Jon Municipal Schools Board of Trustees (Board of Education) unanimously voted to reject a sports cooperative agreement with Grady and House” (neighboring school districts). Other small districts although have approved similar agreements across New Mexico, in order to keep at least a minimum number of HS sports for declining numbers of their rural students. Still, others have forfeited games or discontinued sports altogether. Such declines offer young families yet another reason to move away from rural New Mexico communities. They are simply the latest of several indicators that rural populations, and the supporting rural economy, continue to decline.

Not just eroding school enrollments. Grocery stores have left, too. From Moriarity, Estancia, and Mountainair in Torrance County, to Corona and Carrizozo here, and Cloudcroft in Otero County, there are no longer full-service grocery stores with fresh meat and produce. Except in Capitan and only in larger communities. Dollar General or Family Dollar stores have often taken their place, with dry food and canned food goods only. Few jobs, low wage employment. Witness what rural residents do when they travel to Alamo, Roswell, or Cruces. They carry coolers, a shopping list, and an intention to bring back fresh meat and produce and frozen items. Diminishing schools. Vanishing grocery stores. Anchor institutions of rural communities. Going away.

Enter our New Mexico energy production industries and public and tribal schools’ CTE. Energy production of several types - wind, solar, oil, and gas, geothermal - continue to provide job growth in rural New Mexico or increasingly, have the potential to do so, despite the pandemic. It’s a way to stay in a rural community and make a decent living. A recent online article suggests that wind and solar are the new “cash” crops for ranchers and farmers. Across most of rural New Mexico. Wind and/or solar leases don’t fluctuate like the oil/gas industry. Steady, long-term. Yet a continuing challenge is locating the trained workforce. Take wind energy for example. An estimated 5,000 additional technicians will be needed by 2026 in New Mexico alone. Many in rural New Mexico, in rural Lincoln County. Plus the other technical and professional support jobs - wildlife biologist, wind energy engineer, cybersecurity specialist, meteorologist, transmission lineworker. The jobs will be there - will the trained workers be?

Construction of wind farms and Utility-scale power transmission projects have already started just north of Lincoln County! Dual Credit CTE training in wind turbine technology continues in January 2021 through Region IX area High Schools including Mescalero or resumes at the same time for those enrolled in Fall 2020. If you haven’t enrolled before, start wind energy training today - contact your high school counselor or Ms. Frost at Region 9 in Ruidoso. Spring registration starts on November 10.

By Dr. James Miller