In a dimly-lit, narrow trailer in Wilsonville, a handful of women sit in large moving chairs, with their hands on gear shifts and their feet on pedals. They’re operating virtual heavy equipment machines like bulldozers and excavators, but it’s not a video game. They’re getting certified to operate heavy machinery while in custody at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility — Oregon’s only women’s prison.
Incarcerated people across Oregon are getting the chance to earn job certifications and access resources to assist them in finding work, and employers will see more viable candidates for in-demand jobs across the state, thanks to a $900,000 grant the Oregon Department of Corrections received through the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Second Chance Act.
The Oregon DOC is using the grant money to offer heavy equipment operation training to adults in custody through the Baker Technical Institute — a private institute based in Eastern Oregon that offers career and technical education.
As part of the program, the Baker Technical Institute is also offering first aid and CPR training as well as flagger certification and forklift certification. It also provides wraparound services such as help with writing resumes and assistance searching for jobs.
Twelve women at Coffee Creek are among the first to benefit from the grant-funded program, through a five-week training. More than 100 applied.
Heidi Urban is one of the women at the facility who just finished the training. She earned her heavy equipment operator certification Friday.
“Learning how to use these machines is an awesome opportunity,” Urban told OPB on a visit to the prison this month.
Urban said she’s looking forward to using the skills she’s learned when she’s released from Coffee Creek.
“I think it’s an open opportunity out there right now for jobs like this,” she said.
According to the Oregon Employment Department, many occupations that require heavy equipment operation and other certifications that these adults in custody are earning, are high-demand for the state. That includes jobs like light truck drivers, production workers, operating engineers and other operators of other construction equipment.
According to data from OED, in the past year, there were more than 9,000 new job postings for laborers and freight stock workers — positions that require some of the training the women in custody at Coffee Creek are learning. Over the next 10 years, there will be about 54,000 job openings for stockers and order fillers in the state, other jobs that require those same skills, according to OED.
OED says any job that has more than 781 projected total openings over a 10-year period is considered to be “high-demand” in Oregon.
In the words of Brody Charpilloz, operations manager for Baker Technical Institute, “The sky’s the limit” when it comes to opportunities.
“You can work locally, just some residential stuff, or I mean, you could go build golf courses in Dubai,” he said. “It’s really anywhere you want to go, as big as you want to get.”
Charpilloz said he thinks the women taking the training course at Coffee Creek will be able to easily find jobs after their release, regardless of the stigma that can come with being incarcerated.
“I don’t see them running into any issues getting jobs,” Charpilloz said. “There’s a lot of work out there. If you want it, it’s there.”
Nichole Brown, Coffee Creek’s Superintendent, thinks that for many employers the stigma surrounding formerly incarcerated people is diminishing.
“They’ve received treatment programming that helps them. They’ve received educational opportunities,” Brown said of many of the people in custody throughout Oregon facilities. “Many of them have advanced certification and then more importantly they have learned how to have positive healthy relationships while they’re here. … I would say you’re less of a burden to 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 about the facility’s “viable workforce.” She said she hasn’t been in contact with any employers about this new virtual heavy equipment training, but she said that’s only because it’s the first time the training is taking place.
The virtual heavy equipment operation training is in addition to the on-site training Coffee Creek already offers at its facilities. Brown said the additional hands-on training is very welcome.
“Coffee Creek currently has a physical plant where adults in custody can participate in welding, plumbing [and] other apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship opportunities,” Brown said.
But, she said, the facility does not have enough opportunities for all of the women in custody who want to take part in them.
Brown said there was a waiting list for women who wanted to take part in the training program, and Coffee Creek staff had to weigh multiple factors in selecting candidates including how close they were to their release date and letters of interest the women wrote. She said the facility is continuing to refine the application process for future sessions.
“What we see with the heavy equipment program is an opportunity for those women to come into this setting and really learn on a different type of equipment that they wouldn’t have otherwise learned on,” Brown said, “and be able to get future employment that provides for a living wage job where they can take care of their children and families.”
Urban, one of the women at Coffee Creek who just completed the training, said she hopes other people in custody take advantage of the program.
Along with this new training, she said she’s worked in Coffee Creek’s physical plant for almost three years where she learned to run a scissor lift — equipment often used in construction and warehouse work.
Urban said she grew up watching her father and brother run forklifts, and she hopes to get into some sort of career in construction when she’s released.
“I grew up knowing that girls can do anything boys can do, and I think we can be an inspiration to even younger girls and knowing that, ‘Hey, we can do this. This isn’t just a man’s world. It’s a woman’s world too,’” Urban said.
The $900,000 grant will serve the Oregon Department of Corrections for three years. According to DOC staff, Baker Technical Institute will return to Coffee Creek for two more rounds of training, 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 take part in the training program, starting next month.