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Front Page » July 27, 2006 » The Business Journal » Energized training
Published 3,358 days ago

Energized training

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A rider navigates through a trail north of Price during a July 4 special ride.The local bike group, PASS, schedules regular rides weekly on Wednesday evenings as well as special rides like ones coming up during International Days and the Helper Arts Festival.

The energy industry has changed a great deal during the past 50 years, and it continues to evolve its way in an even more complex world today.

For most Americans, the idea of an inexpensive and independent energy supply is gone with the wind. However, while the cost of electricity, natural gas, gasoline and diesel fuel will never be as low as they once were, that is not all a bad thing. Increased prices bring increased profits and those profits can be plowed back into fuel development as well as developing the alternative fuels of the future.

Because of that, and two other factors, the energy industry is finding itself without the qualified workers it needs to maintain its drilling operations, extract energy from the earth and run the plants that power our country.

Robert Topping was helpful in getting the WTC off the ground.

There are two main crises in the energy industry today, said Robert Topping, one of those who helped to develop the Wilsonville (Oregon) Training Center, part of the Oregon Institute of Technologys charge to train people in the energy and renewable resources industry. The first is that there is a demographic change coming where older workers who have been in the industry for the last 40 years are now retiring, and along with them the knowledge they have accumulated is going away too. The other is a deteriorating and aging infrastructure that handles the energy flow.

Because of that the Oregon Renewable Energy Center (OREC) has become key player in providing training in both energy development and construction (through its Oregon City, Ore., facility) in the northwest and nationally.

In the last two years the College of Eastern Utah has been working toward putting together, in a similar vein, an energy training center where present and potential energy workers could learn their trades, skills and knowledge to take the United States into the rest of the 21st century. The dream of a place where people would come from around the mountain west to learn is now a reality.

With the support of many individuals, agencies and businesses, the Western Energy Training Center (WTC) opened its doors a couple of weeks ago, starting with two classes. Now it will proceed to grow and under the direction of newly appointed director Steve Burge, it is hoped it will be one of the premier programs of its kind in the coming years. Topping, who has been an advisor for the new center, is high on the prospects of this facility.

The main building of the WTC still bears the name of Willow Creek Mine, the last company to operate the facility. With an estimated value of $20 million, the facility, including equipment which will be used for training, was purchased for $1.1 million.

The new center can be an economic boom for the area, he said. It will develop financial opportunities, economic development and also will increase the political influence of the area as well.

Topping said the centers they have created in Oregon have done well, but not everything went as planned.

Wilsonville was not a blue collar type of town, it was filled with more professionals and white collar workers, he stated. So when we first started acceptance was a little slow, but as the areas businesses began to see the numbers of people we were bringing into the area to train and the dollars that was generating for the economy, the attitudes began to change.

From Toppings experience he sees only good things for the WTC.

WTC director Steve Burge shows members of the Carbon County Chamber of Commerce around the center.

In a country where the infrastructure was built to only handle a third of the population it is presently handling, and with that population growing, the need for energy professionals in all aspects of the industry is exploding, he stated.

Reports from energy journals from all over the country back up what Topping says. In some places in the east, coal mines are offering miners who leave their present jobs large bonus and big raises to jump from one coal mine to another. Here in the west, hotbeds of energy development also find that convenience store clerks, restaurant workers and others cant be kept in their positions because energy companies need workers so bad that they offer two to three times the pay for untrained people to fill jobs in their workplaces.

The WTC is located on the location of the old Willow Creek Mine property in Willow Creek Canyon, right next to the Castlegate Cemetary.

The center will be driven by industry and their needs, said Burge, who was instrumental in obtaining funding for purchase of the center and will be in charge of all aspects concerning the new facility. The center is already a bargain, because the cost to purchase the site was only $1.1 million. That is for the buildings, the equipment in them and for 270 acres of land surrounding them. The estimated value of the buildings and the developments alone is about $20 million. We are starting up with only a few full time employees but that will grow as the need increases.

Kim Noyes designed a photo collage which is in display at the Western Energy Training Center. The center recently opened with two classes and more in the planning stages.

When the funding for the center was being secured, many people in the county were skeptical of how such a center would function and if it would be viable. Some of that skepticism remains, but Topping, who experienced many of the same kinds of opposition points out that the Wilsonville Center has more than made up for its cost in only a few years.

Right now our center brings in 300 to 500 people from the outside per week, he said. It brings in between three and four million dollars a year in outside money into the local economy. It has also become a focal point for resources for new local employees and management. Since this is in an energy region, it will become more important to the local community.

Topping said the people coming into the area have generated business for enterprises ranging from hotels/motels to movie theaters and cleaners. He also said that those that come and like it bring people back later and become tourists to the area as well. With the natural beauty and attractions that are already in the eastern Utah area, that kind of thing could easily happen.

WTC is a hopping place on meeting days, filling parking lots that have remained virtually unused since Willow Creek Mine closed in the 90s.

Those kinds of things help to diversify the workforce in the area as well, said Topping.

So far, little private money has been spent on development of the training center but Burge says that industry has already been asking about how they can help and some want to work toward putting together training that will benefit them.

How the WTC will grow and develop is anyones guess. But one thing is for sure - the need is there and people and companies are excited about it.

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July 27, 2006
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