The Salt River Project’s coal-fired power plant, the Navajo Generating Station in Page, is closing soon.
In preparation, SRP has created a new apprenticeship program to retrain former plant workers as information technology business analysts.
Apprenti is a registered nonprofit apprenticeship program operated by the Washington Technology Industry Association. It is intended to provide a proven, reliable pipeline for underrepresented groups, including minorities, women and veterans who want to gain training, certification and placement within the competitive tech industry, according to SRP.
“The Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation came to SRP a while back with the proposal of the Apprenti program in our organization, and the traditional model of that program is to hire externally for the apprentices,” said Tina Drews, director of talent management for SRP. “Upon further consideration, I came back… to the Chamber Foundation and said, ‘Could we use this as an opportunity to re-skill some of our employees from NGS?’”
SRP funds its Apprenti program with assistance from state and federal funding as well as a collaboration with the Coconino County Career Center, Drews said.
“They were able to secure funding for us to pay for all of the up-front education that the apprentices required to start their program,” she said. “They went through… almost 12 weeks of education up at Coconino Community College.”
The program also brought in instructors from Northern Arizona University to provide preliminary education before the apprentices headed down to the Valley to start their on-the-job training.
“The goal of the Apprenti program at SRP is to provide exceptional opportunities to highly skilled employees during the redeployment of NGS,” Drews said. “Information technology is a growing area, especially in the utility industry, and we want to provide apprenticeships that will fill our needs for the workforce of the future. In addition, our apprentices from NGS bring a wealth of knowledge and experience about operations, and that can be hard to find in traditional IT professionals.”
Former NGS employees said they were skeptical about the new position at first due to their unfamiliarity with IT work, but they quickly adjusted.
“I started Googling and reading books about what the career path was, and what they had to do to get there, and it seriously felt like I was reading some other language,” said Nicole McCarty, an SRP apprentice who formerly served as a control room operator and supervisor at NGS. “But, after reading some more simplified versions of it, it sounded like something that I could do. It sounded like there was a lot of process-flow thinking, which I was already accustomed to.”
McCarty was just 18 years old when she started working at NGS. She said she was timid and shy at the time, but she was desperate for a job to support herself and her daughter.
“I was very timid and scared of everything, and SRP really provided me with a lot of training that had leadership skills, speaking skills, decision-making skills, and I just kept on getting better and better at everything,” she said.
McCarty said she was “really good” at her job at NGS, making the prospect of transitioning to something completely new difficult to accept — at first.
“I had always told everybody that I was going to be going down with the ship,” she said. “I was proud to work there. I was really good at what I did.”
But now, McCarty said she is “having a blast” using an application called ProVision to manage business process models for SRP, taking part in cutting-edge projects that are changing the way the utility operates.
“There are a lot of things that we can do, but the base of what we do is we actually facilitate the projects so everyone communicates clearly,” McCarty said. “One of the things that will bring a project to its knees is conflict and confrontation, or even just no communication at all, and that is what we help projects avoid.”
McCarty said she hopes to be as proficient at her new job as her current mentor appears to be. She also said she loves living in the Valley more than she ever would have expected.
Skyler June, another Apprenti participant, shared a similar story of apprehension followed by enjoyment.
June worked in the control room as well and said if he had not left NGS he probably would have ended up with McCarty’s job if she were promoted.
Because NGS is located outside of Page city limits, the plant has its own emergency response team, and June and McCarty are both trained as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who can respond to fires and emergencies involving hazardous materials and confined spaces.
“When I first heard about the apprentice program, I actually didn’t want to go through with it at all,” June said. “I’d been working at the NGS plant for… it would have been 11 years this year. And I myself have loved my job up there to the point where I could walk in, know exactly what I was doing. At any hour, any time, day or night, I just knew what to do and all the processes that go with it.”
But June said his supervisors encouraged him to join SRP’s Apprenti program so he could continue to put his knowledge of power generation to use.
“They were just like, ‘You have all these skills that you cannot waste being unemployed up here,’” June recalled. “They really pushed me toward it, and it’s actually great.”
June said when he was first trained at NGS, he spent long days — 10 hours a day, five days a week — being presented with a deluge of information about how the power plant operates.
Now, he and his colleagues are ready for their next challenge.
“This job is going to create a whole career that I didn’t even plan for,” June said. “But it has opened up so many doors to where it’s not just one single aisle that I can take. It spreads out. I can pretty much go anywhere I want with this opportunity. I am nothing but grateful.”
June said the IT business analyst position affords him and his colleagues chances to work on a wide variety of projects, and he plans to work in as many departments and careers as he can to keep expanding his knowledge and experience.
“Any way that we can create value for the business but, most importantly, add value to ourselves… that’s what we’re used to,” he said.
Photo courtesy of SRP