Janet Kerley does more than just train people to perform environmental work.
Kerley, the program director for Santa Fe Community College’s EPA Brownfields Job Training Program, said she finds a way to include some life-skills training to go with it.
“To me, what I am giving them is a career and not a job,” she said.
Kerley is a big reason the college received a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the third time in the last decade to participate in its brownfield job training program.
Santa Fe Community College was one of 18 recipients to receive a $200,000 grant.
The community college participated in the program in 2011 and 2017, and it has received $700,000 in training grants.
The EPA provides grants to nonprofits, local governments and other organizations to recruit, train and place unemployed and underemployed residents of areas affected by brownfields — previously developed lands not currently in use that may be contaminated.
People in the training program develop the skills to secure full-time jobs in hazardous and solid waste management, as well as within the larger environmental field.
Santa Fe Community College President Becky Rowley called Kerley one of the nation’s leaders in brownfield remediation training, and she is a nationally recognized environmental, health and safety professional with over 25 years of experience.
“From my perspective, it’s her skill set and her connections,” Rowley said. “She is very skilled and very experienced and highly regarded.”
Santa Fe Community College has had 144 participants in the program since 2011, and 130 have completed the rigorous five-week training that mimics a normal 8-to-5 workday.
It touted a 68 percent success rate in those students finding environmental jobs, with an average starting wage of $17.74 per hour.
On their first day, trainees use a forklift Kerley nicknamed “the Beast.” Other exercises teach students how to treat a chemical spill using water. Kerley also brings in employers to talk about what they look for in candidates and to answer trainees’ questions.
“People come in with this idea of what environmental work is,” Kerley said.
“When I show them what it really is, and what it takes to actually clean up — or more importantly, we focus on the prevention of pollution and the proper handling of hazardous waste and hazardous materials — they are just blown away. ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know there were so many rules and regulations!’ ”
David Grey, acting EPA regional administrator, said the college’s ability to attract Native Americans to the program was an important factor in the school receiving a grant.
The college said 20 percent of program graduates are Native Americans, and it will collaborate with the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council for recruiting purposes.
The council is a nonprofit consortium representing the Nambé, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh, Tesuque, Santa Clara and Taos Pueblos.
To help with that effort, Santa Fe Community College is coordinating with Northern New Mexico College to provide training sessions in Española to accommodate participants in rural areas.
Gil Vigil, the council’s executive director, said it provided a letter of support for the college’s grant proposal because it saw how successful the program has been.
Kerley said this training program will have more support than it had when she conducted it in 2011 and 2017. This time, HELP New Mexico Inc., the Department of Workforce Solutions, Santa Fe Community College’s Veterans Resource Center and Santa Fe YouthWorks will be involved in the recruiting process.
Kerley said she is excited by the prospect of helping people not just acquire skills and certification, but assisting students who might not have had the support they needed in their lives. She said seeing family members watch their loved ones go through the graduation line at the end of the program has been a moving experience.
“Many of the people I’ve trained, no one has ever believed in them,” Kerley said.
“I try to show them how to have hope for themselves and what their opportunities are because no one has ever taken the time to show them what those opportunities are.”