From Working Hard to Working Smart

Christy Porter trains in the industrial electrician lab at Gillette College.
Christy Porter trains in the industrial electrician lab at Gillette College.

Christy Porter trains in the industrial electricity lab Tuesday at Gillette College.

Single mom takes advantage of free retraining and educational opportunities to turn her life around

There was a time when Christy Porter’s work life was looking pretty grim. Newly divorced with four children, Porter wasn’t quite sure where to begin. Up until that point, she’d been a stay-at-home mom who’d dropped out of college to get married and start a family in her early 20s.

With her kids in school, she tried to work around their hours, taking a job as a bus driver before eventually also becoming a para-professional in the classroom. With two jobs under her belt, she added a couple more to try to make ends meet, working as a driver’s education instructor and cleaning an office building.

Despite working four jobs, she still wasn’t able to make ends meet.

“I was working hard and literally starving,” she said Monday afternoon over an iced coffee at The Local. “I felt like I was doing things right, but it just wasn’t working.”

A break came two years ago when she got a job as a haul truck driver at Eagle Butte Coal Mine. The pay was much better, and she was able to quit the other four jobs and share childcare with her ex-husband with whom she has joint custody.

Then, Blackjewel fell into bankruptcy in July of 2019, and within one day, her life was once again upended.

“Basically, they called us in and said they’d be shutting down the doors and that was that,” she said.

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Prior to the bankruptcy, Porter had already been feeling vulnerable about her expendability as a truck driver. Though the pay was good, the lack of certainty in the coal industry in general had been hanging over her head on top of the fact that she was the low woman on the totem pole in a position where lshe knew she could be easily replaced.

“I know I needed to get an education if I wanted to get ahead,” she said. “I needed more skills to be marketable to make that one job pay off.”

Working in a coal mine had given her a taste for a field in skilled labor that she realized she really loved, and when she went to file for unemployment following the layoffs, she discovered things might not be as grim as they had appeared.

Enter Gillette Workforce Center Manager Rick Mansheim and Case Manager Donna Gewecke who explained to Porter that there were retraining and educational opportunities available to people in her predicament through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) program that would help pay her tuition to complete an associate degree or certificate program, including paying for her books.

“They were amazing,” she said of the Workforce Center staff, who also helped her identify other training and scholarship opportunities.

Less than two months later, she enrolled in the Industrial Electricity program at Gillette College, and last November, began a 6-month paid internship with the Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC), who also gave her a scholarship for college.

This past May, Porter, the sole female in the program, earned her certificate in industrial electricity, and in May will earn an associate degree in industrial electricity as well as an additional certificate in IT support. This will allow her to enter the workforce as a third-year electrical apprentice. Now, she’s looking forward to graduating and continuing her electrical and networking training, including industrial control systems technology (ICST) and programmable logic controllers (PLC) with an emphasis on industrial systems.

Christy Porter is the only female in the industrial electricity program at Gillette College.
(Back row, from left): Jared Vance (Instructor), Spencer Kercher, Bryson Coleman. (Front row, from left) Justin Parks, Frank Bolster, Hayden Erdman, Tom Shepherd (Instructor), Ryan Jones, Kade Bradley and Tel Russell. (Seated, from left) Christy Porter, Zach Smith and Caleb Cook (Not pictured: Codi Brock).

Today, at age 42, Porter’s future looks dramatically different from the divorced young mother, who back then felt pretty bleak as she bemoaned to a friend about the lack of opportunities for someone in her position. Her friend, however, was much less pessimistic, telling her that no matter what happens, a person always has options.

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“She was right,” Porter said, smiling around her straw. “I thought she was crazy at the time, but she wasn’t. I’ll always remember those words.”

For other women or men in her shoes, Porter encourages them to look into these programs, which have literally changed her life. On top of paying for school, workforce staff and her TRIO advisor at Gillette College, Mary Allison, have been her cheerleaders while also holding her accountable for her own success. Porter knew if she didn’t do well in school, she’d lose her place in the program.

“That really helped,” she said. “Every midterm, I thought I can’t screw up because I need to show my grades to Donna!”

Going back to school had been much easier than she thought, she noted, and being a non-traditional student actually helped her in this case because she didn’t feel like she had to impress anyone other than herself. It also seems to be rubbing off on her own children, including her youngest daughter Sophie who asked for a welder for Christmas when she was nine. Her oldest daughter, Shelby, meanwhile just graduated from high school with an associate degree and plans to go on to study rangeland management.

“All you have to do is put in the work,” she said. “It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be worth it.”

Thus far, more than a dozen local residents have taken advantage of the local retraining opportunities that run the gamut from obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL) through the Workforce Center WIOA grant to earning degrees or certifications in welding, nursing, construction, business, cyber security, dental hygiene, emergency medical response training, computer networking, IT support, machine tool technology and other programs offered through the CARES Wyoming grant programs at Gillette College. Eligible residents can earn up to $5,162 for housing and other expenses as well as up to $2,500 in funding from Adult Education Grant Program. To be eligible, a person must be a Wyoming resident between 25-64 and either unemployed or under-employed as a result of COVID.

A new eight-week class session starts on Oct. 15 at Gillette College, and Vice President Janell Oberlander encourages anyone interested in exploring their options to stop by the college enrollment office or the Gillette Workforce Center for referrals.

Jennifer is a Wyoming transplant who can’t imagine living anywhere else. She comes to Outliers with more than a decade of community reporting experience from publications around the state. For story ideas and tips, contact Jen at jckocher@mcllc.net.