In a cramped, dimly lit trailer in Wilsonville, a handful of women sit in large movable chairs, their hands on the gearshifts and their feet on the pedals. They use virtual heavy equipment like bulldozers and excavators, but this is not a video game. They are certified to operate heavy machinery while incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon’s only women’s prison.
Incarcerated people across Oregon have the opportunity to earn professional certifications and access resources to help them find work, and employers will see more viable candidates for jobs in demand across the state. , thanks to a $900,000 grant the Oregon Department of Corrections received through the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance Second Chance Act.
The Oregon DOC is using the grant money to provide heavy equipment operation training to adults in custody through the Baker Technical Institute – a private institute based in eastern Oregon. which offers professional and technical training.
As part of the program, the Baker Technical Institute also offers first aid and CPR training as well as flagman certification and forklift certification. It also provides comprehensive services such as resume writing assistance and job search assistance.
Twelve Coffee Creek women are among the first to benefit from the grant-funded program, thanks to a five-week training. More than 100 applications.
Heidi Urban is one of the women at the facility who has just completed the training. She got her heavy equipment operator certification on Friday.
“Learning to use these machines is a tremendous opportunity,” Urban told OPB during a visit to the prison this month.
Urban said she looked forward to using the skills she learned when she was released from Coffee Creek.
“I think it’s an open opportunity there right now for jobs like this,” she said.
According to the Oregon Department of Employment, many occupations that require the use of heavy equipment and other certifications that these adults in detention obtain are in high demand by the state. This includes jobs like light truck drivers, production workers, operations engineers, and other operators of other construction equipment.
According to OED data, over the past year there have been more than 9,000 new job vacancies for laborers and freight workers – positions that require some of the training that women inmates at Coffee Creek are learning. Over the next 10 years, there will be about 54,000 job openings for storekeepers and order fillers in the state, other jobs that require the same skills, according to the OED.
The OED says any job that has more than 781 total expected openings over a 10-year period is considered “high demand” in Oregon.
In the words of Baker Technical Institute Operations Manager Brody Charpilloz, “the sky’s the limit” when it comes to opportunity.
“You could work locally, just some residential stuff, or I mean, you could go and build golf courses in Dubai,” he said. “It’s really wherever you want to go, however big you want.”
Charpilloz said he thinks women who take the training course at Coffee Creek will be able to easily find jobs after their release, regardless of the stigma that may come with incarceration.
“I don’t see them having any problems finding a job,” Charpilloz said. “There is a lot of work there. If you want it, it’s there.
Nichole Brown, superintendent of Coffee Creek, thinks for many employers the stigma around formerly incarcerated people is diminishing.
“They have received treatment programs that help them. They were given educational opportunities,” Brown said of many people held in Oregon facilities. “Many of them have advanced certification and more importantly they have learned to have positive and healthy relationships during their time here. … I would say you are less of a burden on society and more of a compliment, an opportunity .
Brown said Coffee Creek has been connected with employers and industry professionals in the past, including ironworkers and electricians who have reached out to ask questions about the “viable workforce.” of the installation. She said she hadn’t been in contact with any employers about this new virtual heavy equipment training, but she said that was only because it was the first time the training had taken place. .
The virtual heavy equipment operation training is in addition to the on-site training that Coffee Creek already offers at its facilities. Brown said the additional hands-on training was welcome.
“Coffee Creek currently has a physical factory where adults in custody can participate in welding, plumbing [and] other learning and pre-learning opportunities,” Brown said.
But, she said, the facility does not provide enough opportunities for all women in custody who want to attend.
Brown said there was a waiting list for women who wanted to participate in the training program and that Coffee Creek staff had to weigh several factors when selecting candidates, including how close to their release date and the letters of interest that the women had written. She said the institution continues to refine the application process for future sessions.
“What we’re seeing with the heavy equipment program is an opportunity for these women to come into this setting and really learn about a different type of equipment that they wouldn’t have learned about otherwise,” Brown said. , “and to be able to secure future jobs with decent wages where they can take care of their children and family.
Urban, one of the Coffee Creek women who just completed the training, said she hopes other people in custody will benefit from the program.
Along with this new training, she said she worked at the physical Coffee Creek plant for almost three years, where she learned to operate a scissor lift – equipment often used in construction and warehouse work. .
Urban said she grew up watching her father and brother drive forklifts, and hopes to pursue some sort of construction career when she is released.
“I grew up knowing that girls can do anything that boys can do, and I think we can be an inspiration to even younger girls and knowing that, ‘Hey, we can do that. It’s not just a man’s world, it’s also a woman’s world,” Urban said.
The $900,000 grant will serve the Oregon Department of Corrections for three years. According to DOC staff, the Baker Technical Institute will return to Coffee Creek for two more training cycles, reaching a total of 36 women in custody. The grants will serve more than 200 adults in custody statewide over the three-year period.
Brown with Coffee Creek says she hopes the program will be offered again in the future.
Snake River Correctional Institute and Powder River Correctional Facility, in Ontario and Baker City respectively, will be the next two facilities to participate in the training program, starting next month.