LECHEE, Ariz. - For only the third time in its nearly 40-year history, all of the students who began one of the most intensive training programs in the energy industry successfully completed it to become regular employees at Navajo Generating Station (NGS).
Last month, two women and 14 men graduated the seven-week-long NGS Power Plant Fundamentals School. The required course instructs each new employee in every phase of NGS's technical operation, procedures and safety.
In his 35 years of teaching this course, Tom Hull said he remembers only one class having all participants graduate. In 2001, a class half this size had all of its participants graduate.
About 1,000 applied for the 16 available positions. Currently, 90 percent - or 443 of NGS's 494 employees - are Navajo preference.
"This will be the hardest thing you'll ever do," Hull tells every new class. "We basically teach two years worth of material in seven weeks. So there's no down time. Everything we teach is important. Everything we teach needs to be learned and remembered."
"Having the entire class make it is rare to see happen," said NGS plant manager Bob Talbot. "We all have to take care of each other. If you see one of your co-workers about to do something that is unsafe, you need to stop and have that discussion. It's expected for you to do that, even if I'm senior to you."
The program consists of 10 hours a day of classroom lecture and fieldwork four days a week, followed by a weekly test. The course outline is 50 pages long.
It includes sections on every aspect of NGS's parts, equipment, procedures and operations, from electron theory to the railroad that delivers coal, from physics to the properties of superheated steam, from the Federal Reclamation Act of 1902 to the history of why NGS was built where it is on the Navajo Nation.
This class had a diverse mix of Navajo students with a wide array of experience. One is an aerospace engineer with 27 years experience that includes building rocket engines and working on the space shuttle following the Challenger disaster.
Two are recent Marine and Navy veterans. Another is a mechanical engineer and one has an MBA. Some students had experience at other power plants while others are recent high school grads. One was an Italian language interpreter at the Glen Canyon Dam.
Most of the students agreed the course was tougher than most college courses but that teamwork, dedication and devotion was what got them through as a group.
Justin Noble of Kayenta was working at a medical distribution company in Phoenix when he learned a new class would begin and he had been accepted. Both he and his wife wanted to move home and leave the big city behind.
But in the third week of the course he faced a critical decision: skip a day of class when his new daughter was born in Tuba City or stay to avoid the risk of not passing.
"My wife and I talked about this possibility," he said. "We agreed that Salt River Project offers such an amazing improvement to lives that we decided that if this was going to happen for us, it would be worth it for me to stay in class to achieve this goal for our family."
Now he says both his son and daughter will be able to attend any college they want because of the financial security his new job will provide.
"Their lives will be ten-fold better than my life was, and they will have many more opportunities than I was ever given," Noble said.
Erwin Marks left home in Tonalea 40 years ago to pursue his education and career. His work in aerospace engineering and design took him to California, Utah, New Mexico, Indiana, Ohio and elsewhere around the country.
But in recent years, because the industry has withstood repeated reductions in force, layoffs and budget cutbacks, he decided it was time to leave his job with Raytheon Missile Systems to try a new field, and the energy industry was a good fit.
He said business and people will always continue to need energy as cities, towns and the economy continue to grow. But this job allows him to return home after so many years away.
"I have spent a lot of years away from here," Marks said. "I used to visit maybe once a year for a few days. To come back and to live where I have my childhood memories, that's an opportunity that I can't express. This is a good opportunity because the way I see it I get to be in my own homeland and be in a position to be able to contribute to the needs of a company and to the needs of a people."
Freeman Benally of Shonto also was inspired to get into the course and successfully complete it because of his father, although for a different reason. The Fort Lewis College biology graduate felt the need to be home to help.
"It means a lot to me because my father is not in great health," Benally said. "Winters can be hard and I'm glad I can be here in order to help him. That's really what makes me want to stay here, my father. And NGS provided a job for me in order to do so I'm grateful for it."
He said the program "helps you dig deep within yourself to actually find out who you are in stressful situations."
Terry John, known as TJ, grew up at Navajo Mountain. He said he's one of those students who always struggled in school and felt like he struggled after high school as well.
His last job was at the White Mesa Uranium Mill in Blanding, Utah, but he wanted to come home. He said he had to successfully complete the Fundamentals School or face the prospect of going on the road for construction and other jobs.
He credits his classmates with helping him learn the material and pushing everyone through.
"It was a lot harder than anybody ever told me it would be," John said.
He said he got support from his entire family and that his wife was overjoyed when he told her he passed.
"She actually started crying because she was so happy," he said.
Curtis Slim grew up in Page and always knew about NGS. He said it was a big move on his part when he gave up his job as an Italian language interpreter at the Glen Canyon Dam. He said he learned Italian as a missionary to Italy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
He said Italian visitors to Page were astounded when a young Navajo approached them and said in perfect Italian, "I'm from Arizona. Where are you from in Italy," Slim said. "One guy actually gave me a piece of his jewelry because he was, you know, really excited, really happy."
He said moving to the power plant from the dam is definitely a big career change and big opportunity.
"I was teaching people about hydroelectric power," he said. "This is a whole different world, and it scared me. But those teachers are some of the best. As far as college professors, they were above that. I love what I'm going to do, whether operations, maintenance or railroad."
Celesta Littleman of LeChee said she "had it rough" growing up. She was a teenage mom struggling financially to get by for years.
With determination and grit, she was able to put herself through Arizona State University (ASU), earn a degree in criminology and criminal justice in 2009, and then graduate from the New Mexico State Police Academy. She went on to work at the maximum security New Mexico State Penitentiary, surrounded by and competing with men.
"If you put your mind to it and stay devoted and committed, anything's possible," Littleman said. "I believe that, I really do.I was a single mother, I was on welfare, but I did it and I graduated from ASU. I did the same thing as well in New Mexico with law enforcement. All men. And I made it though all those academies, New Mexico State Police and the penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe. And then I went through this. It's a big accomplishment."
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