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FARMINGTON – San Juan College is better positioned now to help displaced workers in the coal and other energy industries transition into other high-paying jobs, school officials say.

The difference is a $1.4 million federal grant the college received in October that will go toward that effort.

On Thursday morning, college, local, state and federal officials gathered in the new School of Energy to celebrate the school's receipt of the grant. The grant award was part of a $14.5 million grant – shared by 36 entities nationwide – from the Obama administration’s Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, program.

Matt S. Erskine – deputy assistant secretary of commerce for economic development and chief operating officer of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which is the primary agency for the POWER initiative – commended the college and other regional stakeholders for their work in helping the region's economy. Erskine was appointed to his post at the EDA by President Barack Obama in 2011.

"We come together today at an important time, both for this region and for this country," Erskine said. "Waning reliance on coal-fired power generation is taking a toll in regions like this where plant shutdowns strike a blow to the economy."

Erskine said the grant dollars would help generate innovations in the local economy and assist workers in finding new jobs. He said investment in the region would come in the form of future grant award opportunities.

College President Toni Pendergrass said the college will be focused on helping displaced workers through a variety of programs and training programs. The money will go toward upgrading facilities and programs at the college to help train students in select careers like information technology, health care and other energy sector fields, she said. The college plans to spend approximately $500,000 to upgrade training equipment in the instrumentation and controls program at the School of Energy.

"It is our responsibility to do everything we can to help displaced workers," she said. "And we want to place them in high-demand, high-wage careers."

Those targeted second careers include commercial truck driving, instrumentation and controls, petroleum production, health care and information technology. Many of those jobs, especially those in information technology, did not exist five or 10 years ago, she said.

This summer, San Juan College struck a "strategic partnership" arrangement with IBM that will pay interns to work 20 hours each week while attending classes at the college to earn a technology-based certificate or degree that could lead to full-time work at IBM, Pendergrass said.

The Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments, based in Gallup, also received $327,300 to coordinate a regional study on impacts to the local coal industry and opportunities for regional economic sustainability. NNMCOG Director Jeff Kiely said his organization will produce a report next year that examines coal and related industries, and make recommendations on ways to diversify energy production in the region.

"This whole region is all about energy, so we have to become the best in the country, if not the world, at understanding what the trends are going forward and what we need to do to prepare ourselves in terms of new business, in terms of retaining the businesses we already have  ... and, more than anything else, preparing our work force for the 21st century economy," Kiely said.

State Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said after the conference that the grant money is welcome, but the effort behind the grant represented onerous top-down overreach from the federal government.

"Happy for the government handout in lieu of real jobs," Montoya said. "It was stated that we need to respond to the changing energy environment — that's changing unnecessarily. It's being changed, unlike technology coming in and forcing a change and trying to force technology to catch up. It's artificial."

Erskine said the effort was quite the opposite.

"The way I'd put it is, we know that with the coal economy presenting challenges for communities, this is to support the bottom-up ideas for how to diversify, how to deal with the challenges," Erskine said. "Our motto is not to have kind of the top-down policy, but, rather, to provide the resources and tools through the partnerships on the ground."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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