During the past 10 years industry leaders throughout the country have identified a looming crisis, as baby boomers prepare to retire leaving a large gap in qualified, skilled employees. No place is that predicament clearer than in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, an area bordering Gillette which is often labeled the Energy Capital of the Nation. Nearly one-half of the coal used to produce electricity in the United States is mined in the region around Gillette. An industrial based community sitting on a wealth of natural resources, local residents recognized the importance of its mining, oil and gas industry workforce. Several years ago, as industry leaders noticed the average worker's age approached 50, they started seeking ways to circumvent the problem. With an aging workforce and challenged by a booming fossil fuel market in the early 2000s, workforce shortages began in epidemic proportions.
"Our workforce is aging," said John Lavrenz, training supervisor at Alpha Coal West, America's third largest coal producer. "This has forced companies to become more proactive in preparing for potential retirements ... It especially took the issue of needing a good training center from the back burner to a daily topic of discussion for many people."
At the company's mines in the basin, it is anticipated that 60 to 70 percent of their highly skilled industry workers will retire within two years. Those large numbers have pushed Alpha Coal West and others to make recruiting qualified workers from electricians to welders a priority.
"Technology has changed too," Lavrenz said. "We used to be able to have our experienced workers train the new hires. We can't do that now."
In search of solutions, industry leaders turned to their local community college for answers. Founded in 1969, as a branch campus of the Northern Wyoming Community College District, Gillette College has worked closely with industry leaders to produce a qualified workforce for the industries surrounding the community. Tapping into the vital resource of freshly trained workers appealed to industry recruiters.
"We wanted training for our industry," Lavrenz said. "So they listened to our needs and planned accordingly."
As an employer who recruits and pays for potential workers to attend Gillette College to obtain training, Lavrenz said Alpha Coal West and other employers in the area recognize what an immense asset the recently completed Technical Education Center will be in providing a quality education to students. The Technical Education Center, which opened to students this fall is home to programs ranging from diesel technology to industrial electrical technology. Prior to the new facility, with classes spread out across the community in less than ideal buildings, course offerings and number of students that could access classes were limited. With the new high-tech facility in place, Gillette College is poised to provide students with a top-notch education using the latest technologies that local industries desire.
"The good thing is, we can mold them to what our needs are," Lavrenz said. "We'll know they have the quality education this college has been known for."
Valuing Gillette College's ability to provide workforce development, local industries have not only worked with the college on expansion plans, but they have also provided financial support by donating more than $500,000 which is being matched by the State of Wyoming to establish a $1 million endowment fund for training equipment replacement. Through the endowment funds, the college will be able to stay abreast of the latest technologies and continue to provide state-of-the-art equipment for the Technical Education Center.
With fewer worker shortages and a new crop of potential employees readily available, Lavrenz said Alpha Coal West no longer has to look for workers outside of the state at other technical schools. "We're not going out of state to recruit anymore," Lavrenz said. "We're recruiting here. This facility provides us with a vast array of opportunities that we never had prior to its completion."
That's good news for students like freshman Caleb Pedersen, whose tuition is being paid by his employer, Peabody Energy, the world's largest private-sector coal company. Pedersen entered the diesel technology program in fall 2009, before classes moved to the new Technical Education Center. Just a few weeks into the spring 2010 semester, Pedersen is already recognizing the value of the new building and the benefits it will add to his education.
"There's a lot more technology and hands-on learning," Pedersen said. "You can only learn so much in a classroom."
In addition to new technologies like engine and chasis dynamometers that allows for more hands-on, project-based learning, Pedersen said he enjoys the close-knit college atmosphere. "It's small--you get a lot of hands-on and a lot of help from the instructors," Pedersen said. Pedersen's ability to learn in a high-tech facility, in a hands-on environment, make him one of several Gillette College students prepared to help fill the nation's demand for highly skilled employees.
When the college hosted its grand opening in December 2009, the importance of industry and education working together to build a facility that would help solve workforce shortages, did not go unnoticed on a number of levels. With guest speakers from the state's governor to Assistant U.S. Secretary for the Department of Labor Jane Oates, the value of the new facility and its important role in preparing students to work in industry related fields was recognized.
"This is an extraordinary building and this is an extraordinary campus," Oates said. "In most places in this country this would not have happened. When you invest in a facility like this ... you're keeping business here and you're keeping your community strong."