As the director of Talent Management for Salt River Project, a community based, not-for-profit utility – which also happens to be the third-largest public power company in the country – our staffing needs are unique and diverse. Recently, we faced an inimitable challenge as the four owners of Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a coal-fired power plant, located in Page, Arizona, prepared to close the generating station by the end of 2019. I would like to share how our company — along with great community support and collaboration — proactively established an innovative work-force solution to develop and train employees – it’s a solution we hope other businesses can model.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and all her life, 34-year-old Nicole McCarty has reinvented herself in order to survive. She was a single mom by the age of 16 with no way to support her daughter. Her only goal: Make a better life for her child. The single mom set her sights on the area’s largest employer, Navajo Generating Station (NGS).
“My initial goal was just to be a janitor who made $14 to $15 an hour cleaning. I was like, ‘I’ll clean your toilets for that much!’” McCarty said. “A (NGS) human resources’ employee told me about a strength test — as long as I could lift a 50-pound bag of dog food at Walmart, I would pass, so I went to Walmart and I tried it. I was like, ‘Ah! I got this!’”
At that time, McCarty was 18; her daughter had just turned 2. What started as a job to simply feed and clothe her daughter, blossomed into a long and successful career with SRP, the operator of NGS. The single mom with no prior power plant experience went on to become the only female control room operations specialist to help run the 2,250-megawatt power plant, which produced electricity for people in Arizona, California and Nevada.
With NGS closing, McCarty once again faced the need to redefine herself. She heard about a program being offered by SRP to retrain NGS employees to be information technology business analysts through one of the state’s first tech-apprenticeship, called Apprenti.
To get the program off the ground in early 2018, SRP partnered with the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation, which serves as the state affiliate for Apprenti to reskill NGS employees for mid-level IT business analyst positions. The innovative retraining program received funding from the Coconino County Career Center and was taught by instructors from Coconino Community College and Northern Arizona University.
“This is a powerful example of finding a creative, unique method to develop local talent while also emphasizing what individuals are capable of becoming over finding jobs for them based on their current work and training experiences,” said Jennifer Mellor, chief innovation officer for the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation. “If employers can make this mindset shift, we will be able to use this method to build strategic talent pipelines for in-demand industries, while connecting individuals to high-growth opportunities.”
Apprenti became a solution to address the redeployment effort of NGS employees into Phoenix-area positions. It also became the answer to McCarty’s prayers. The once impoverished teen never imagined she would one day live in the city and become an IT business analyst. Being selected into the program required a rigorous process that involved aptitude testing, critical thinking skills and rounds of interviews. McCarty is one of 10 former NGS employees participating in the SRP’s first IT tech apprenticeship. The Apprenti students will remain paid SRP employees as they now undergo a year of on-the-job training at an SRP facility in metro Phoenix.
After successfully completing the apprenticeship requirements, they will start their new tech careers with SRP.
“SRP is a beacon of corporate stewardship. With a strong commitment to their employees, the company is offering a job to every employee who stays in the organization,” said Todd Sanders, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation. “Utilizing the Apprenti apprenticeship model to retrain employees for IT Business Analysts positions sets a strong example for others. Arizona has a tight labor market, especially for IT talent, and companies need to be innovative and open to new approaches, like Apprenti, to prepare the workforce. We hope that other companies will deploy a similar model to develop current employees and increase talent pipelines in our region.”
In spite of all the challenges, there’s peace in McCarty’s heart and mind knowing she has a strong future with a company that invests in its employees. Plus, there will be no more heavy-lifting in the Walmart aisle for McCarty – her hard work has insured that.
“Working for a company that strives to operate with full consciousness of all impacted is an honor,” she said. “I am now even getting computer programming experience, which fascinates me. I enjoy who I’ve become with SRP’s influence, and I look forward to meeting my future self.”
The Apprenti apprentices will complete the program with 18 college credits, a journeyperson card and certificate of completion from the Department of Labor. SRP is the first company to pilot the Apprenti program in Arizona.
Dr. Tina Drews is the Director of Talent Management at Salt River Project (SRP). She leads organizational and leadership development, skills training and apprenticeships, diversity and inclusion, education and talent strategy. Dr. Drews advocates for innovative workforce solutions, is passionate about employee development, continuous learning, and the advancement of our workforce. She has extensive experience in public and higher education and serves on numerous community boards such as the Arizona Career and Technical Education Quality Skills Commission, Diversity Leadership Alliance and Maricopa County Workforce Development Board.