Four Corners Partners: Expanding Skills for an Expanding Economy

Many communities working to diversify their economies face a common dilemma: the “chicken and egg” challenge of workforce re-training. On one hand, it’s difficult to determine which industries the existing workforce should be re-trained to, but it is equally difficult to develop or attract a new industry if the workforce isn’t trained to fill those jobs. So, which should be addressed first, re-training or industry expansion? In San Juan County, New Mexico, key partners in economic development and education are coming together to answer: both

Scenic, rugged, and rural, San Juan County forms the New Mexico corner of the famed Four Corners and occupies a land area larger than some U.S. states. Historically, the region’s economy has been largely supported by two power plants, a coal field, and natural gas extraction and production. The County has long been impacted by the ongoing boom and bust of gas prices, and now faces significant closures of coal mining and power generation. San Juan Generating Station, previously New Mexico’s single largest carbon emitter, closed in 2022 and the Four Corners Power Plant, located just to the south on the Navajo Reservation, is slated for closure in 2031. When the estimated 600 remaining power plant and mine jobs are lost there is the added risk of losing the region’s skilled workforce that filled those high-paying jobs as they seek opportunities elsewhere. 

The loss of these workers and their families is a major concern for both Four Corners Economic Development (4CED) and San Juan College. The College offers a wide variety of career training, workforce development, and entrepreneurship opportunities, including an Enterprise Center and the School of Energy, which is New Mexico’s training grounds for high-wage energy jobs. As strong partners in this work, 4CED and the School of Energy align on a key distinction – they are not leaving behind the County’s roots in carbon energy, but rather exploring how to meet a wider range of energy and economic needs. This approach allows the County and the College to honor the industries that helped build them, while keeping an eye on tomorrow.

In 2019 the School of Energy was designated as New Mexico’s Center of Excellence for Renewable Energy and Sustainability, opening the door to additional state funding to study and develop curriculum expansion opportunities including electric vehicle technicians, lithium batteries, hydrogen power, and water sustainability. These topics mirror the economic opportunities in the region, as well as the direction many of the School’s energy industry donors are moving. For example, BP Energy has committed to net zero emissions by 2050 and invested $4.9 billion (about 30% of its US expenditure) in alternative energies such as hydrogen. In augmenting its offerings, the School of Energy is training the skilled workforce that will meet the energy industry’s needs of the future.

Meanwhile, 4CED has been diligently working towards a diversified economy to create new jobs and replace tax revenue. In 2022 the organization invested in a Competitive Asset Assessment and in 2023 a San Juan County Team, led by 4CED, was selected to participate in the Building Resilient Economies in Coal Communities (BRECC) Action Challenge. The Action Challenge program pairs communities addressing coal transition, like San Juan County, with regional technical assistance providers, like Community Builders. Community Builders was selected for the BRECC team based on a long history of helping western communities revitalize their economies. This year-long partnership has led to the creation of a comprehensive Economic Diversification Plan, with six key coal transition strategies, including broader and more diverse Energy Development. 

As both the School of Energy and 4CED look for ways to expand energy and economic opportunities in the region, their continued collaboration has helped mitigate the “chicken and egg” challenge. Through partnership, 4CED and the School of Energy have the opportunity to concurrently pursue target industries and equip workers with the necessary skills to meet employer demand. For example, the College and 4CED have both committed to exploring the advancement of hydrogen energy. As 4CED works closely with private firms and the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) to explore catalytic funding opportunities for hydrogen development, setting up the creation of hundreds of hydrogen jobs, the School of Energy has been working towards the introduction of an advanced Clean Hydrogen Technician certificate. This symbiotic relationship also means that after gaining the skills needed to work in these new energy technologies, the coal workforce and San Juan College graduates will be able to remain in the community and support the local economy. 4CED and the School of Energy’s shared diversification will help maintain a livable and thriving San Juan County with a diverse energy and economic future.

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