Retraining an industry of workers starts with understanding what they already know

Craig Station Power Plant at 2101 S Ranney St, Craig, CO 81625 on Dec. 17, 2021.
Photo by Billy Schuerman / For the Craig Press

It’s been two years since coal and power plant leaders announced that Craig Station will close its doors by the end of the decade, and for the hundreds of employees who work there and at the coal mines that feed into it everyday, that means there’s a choice to make: re-employment or retirement.

For many of those employees, the choice will most likely be to go into a different field of the workforce.

In the Yampa Valley, some have already begun working to help them in that transition. Christina Oxley, business services coordinator for the Northwest Workforce Sub-Area of the Colorado Rural Workforce Consortium, has been developing skills mapping for mine and plant workers. This means that she takes the skills that these employees currently have and finds comparable work and opportunities for them.

She said she took out any job with less than 70% compatibility and further narrowed down that list by eliminating those at the lower end of the wage spectrum. Jobs that had a fair number of availability in Northwest Colorado are also highlighted.

“Basically, if there was a 100% match, but the pay was low or there were only a few jobs for that occupation, I didn’t include them,” Oxley said. “But, that doesn’t mean those occupations aren’t great opportunities. This is why I consider this a pretty high-level and generic list. Each person has a very individualized skill set and experience in other positions that could open a slew of other opportunities and compatible occupations. This is generally a one-on-one process that I modified for a really large and diverse group of employees.”

Oxley said that though the process is early, some of the energy workers she has worked with have expressed interest in some of their current options. Though her list isn’t exhaustive, she has identified dozens of options that could be the right fit for an employee looking to transition. For example, someone who is a general operations manager has a 91% compatibility with a compliance manager opening. The median hourly wage for that new job is $46.87, and there are 1,726 openings across the state. In the northwest region, there are an estimated 13 openings for that job annually.

Other common matches include heating and air conditioning mechanics, machinists, wind energy production managers, automotive mechanics and technician/trade jobs.

“We’re seeing some interest in starting their own businesses and that’s generally within the trades,” Oxley said. “We’re hearing that many are looking at opportunities aligned with their current skill set, but we haven’t been able to really start one-on-one work, so those are just generalizations.”

All of the clients that Oxley works with are transitioning from one job to another — not just clients in the energy field. Though the northwest region of Colorado has not seen many large-scale transitions in the workforce, other communities across the state have seen large layoffs at businesses and industries, she said.

“It’s hard when it’s in your backyard and harder still in smaller communities where there aren’t a lot of transition opportunities, so you know that some people will be leaving the area,” she said. “That’s always difficult for both the person (and) a community that doesn’t want to lose people who are loyal, hard-working and incredibly valuable members of society.”

Oxley also said that the workforce center is sharing all of its findings with the Office of Just Transition so that any funding for community development matches the wants and needs of the workers. In the end, the goal is to connect current workers with the resources they need to find a job in a different field if they wish to do so.

“This is a time of unprecedented resources for transitioning workers, and a lot of assumptions are being made as to what will best serve them,” she said. “Hearing directly from people about their plans and needs is the best way to ensure the resources match the need.”

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