Nine Graduate From Navajo Generating Station's 'Do or Die School'


Nine men recently graduated from the Navajo Generating Station's (NGS) intensive entry training program. The course is difficult to get into and prospective students are told it is difficult to complete. About half of those who are interviewed are invited to participate. Then, only about half who begin are able to successfully finish, states an NGS news release.

The seven-week-long Power Plant Fundamentals School—a version of the program NGS originated 40 years ago to train its operators—instructs each new employee in every phase of the power plant’s technical operation, procedures and safety.

The highly technical course, which is equivalent to a two-year college course, is nicknamed the “Do or Die School” because only successful completion earns a student a full-time job at NGS.

“You made it through. That’s a significant achievement,” said NGS Human Resources Manager Tim Barney. “Be proud of yourselves. A lot of people aren’t able to get through it. It takes a lot of dedication.”

Tom Hull, who has taught the course for 25 years, said this graduating class pulled together more than many in a long time. “The skills that you brought to the school, the work that you did helping each other out, making sure that no one got left behind, the sacrifices that you made to get through the school and the work ethic you show, don’t set those things aside,” he said.

Hull said there is no down time during the program. Everything taught is important, and everything needs to be learned and remembered.

Ray Elshire, who was assigned to the Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad, said he found out how true that was.

“Forty-one years of life and I’ve done a lot of things,” he said at the recent graduation luncheon. “All I can say about this is, 'Holy Cow. You aren’t kiddin’. This was the hardest thing.'”

He said calamities, problems and doubt flooded him during the second week, leaving him wondering why he left his previous job. “Both cars break down—can’t deal with it. Parent-teacher conference—can’t deal with it. Dad, I got to be here—can’t deal with it,” Elshire said. “Tom had me to the point where I was counting flagpoles because I was expecting it to show up on a test.”

But he said he’s both pleased and proud to have made it through and to be working for NGS. “I’m really looking forward to going to work on the railroad but I would have taken any job,” Elshire said. “I would have changed the tires on the bicycles. I feel real fortunate to be here.”

NGS conducts the Fundamentals School twice a year. Each new course is advertised throughout the Navajo Nation and in Phoenix.

While mechanical ability is helpful, some students come with little but a determination to succeed.

The program has been equated to a 21-credit college course, with 10 hours a day of classroom lecture and fieldwork followed by at least two hours per night of study group.

The curriculum outline is 50 pages long. It includes sections on virtually every aspect of the power plant’s parts, equipment, procedures and operations; from electron theory to the railroad that delivers coal, from physics to the history of the Federal Reclamation Act of 1902 and why NGS was built where it is.

Along the way, students are taught how to study to learn the material effectively. But the key to their success is teamwork to help each other. By the end of the course, students have progressed from learning how individual systems work to understanding how they function as an interconnected whole to produce electricity.

Because NGS can be compared to an immense yet complicated tea kettle, students learn the properties of steam, heat and fuel down to their molecular levels, and how energy is captured and used.

With concerns about power plant emissions, students learn that NGS pollution controls remove 99.5 percent of particulate matter, 97 percent of sulfur dioxide and, with the addition of $45 million low NOx burners installed last year, 40 percent of nitrogen oxide.

Mike Woods, manager of New Employee Development, said NGS has hired 261 employees over the last 10 years—all of them Navajo or Navajo preference. Currently, 452—or 83 percent—of NGS’s 545 employees are Navajo.