As Delta County's mining industry lays off workers, a small fiber installation business based in Hotchkiss is grabbing those workers up and giving them jobs.
Eric and Teresa Neal and son Dakota Coats own Lightworks Fiber & Consulting LLC. Established in 2011, the company provides fiber installation and circuit turn-up services and services related to the cellular industry's evolution from Third Generation (3G) to Fourth Generation (4G) technology.
While a lot of its current projects are in the Denver area and Nebraska, Lightworks recently contracted with Delta-Montrose Electric Association and Elevate Fiber, which is in the process of bringing high-speed internet services to Montrose and Delta counties.
Eric is a former coal miner and has worked in the fiber optics business since 2000. Teresa Neal said he entered the business at the urging of college friends, and early on helped install fiber throughout Houston, Texas.
Dakota, a 2011 Hotchkiss High School graduate, also worked in the mines during the summer while earning a business degree. It was at Dakota's urging that the family started the business, said Teresa Neal.
The timing was good. Earlier this year DMEA announced Phase I of its fiber-to-the-premises program, and launched Elevate Fiber to build the infrastructure.
When bidding for the Elevate Fiber contract, the company emphasized the fact that it's local, said Neal. To provide fiber optics installation services in Delta County "is an opportunity that kind of falls in your lap, and one you hope for."
Neal said that at this time last year, Lightworks employed 18 workers; today it employs about 62. All but two of its current employees have ties to Delta and Montrose counties, and 80 to 90 percent of that workforce were formerly employed by the coal mines. Even the human resources manager is a former Bowie Resources employee, said Neal.
DMEA vice president of member relations and human resources Virginia Harman said DMEA made the decision to use local companies wherever possible in an effort to put locals to work. DMEA "is very pleased that contractors were able to tap into the local work force, and in particular those who were actively seeking work," said Harman.
"They're also getting experience in an industry that is booming," said Harman. Phase I of the project alone could take up to five years. Of the 32,000 meters in the DMEA coverage area, about 7,700 will have been passed when Phase I work in Montrose, Paonia and Orchard City is complete.
"They're hardworking," said Neal of the miners. "They have a good work ethic. They roll over into the placement side pretty easily." The pay is less than what the miners are used to, said Neal, "But it's a good job." Since the company is small and family-owned, it is trying to grow and grab work when it becomes available. As the company grows it hopes to provide full benefits.
Andy Carver is one of those former miners. A Hotchkiss native, he hired on with Lightworks about two years ago and is now a project manager. He's known Eric Neal all of his life and worked with him in the mines in Trinidad, Colo. Carver accepted the position after realizing he'd eventually lose his job with Bowie.
After high school Carver worked summers in the mines while studying auto body repair at Wyoming Technical Institute. After finding a low-paying job at an auto body shop in Wyoming he realized he could make more money in the mines and returned to Delta County.
"I can't complain too much about working in the mines," said Carver, a third-generation coal miner. But he admits, the travel, which sometimes took him overseas, took a toll on his family. Now he's happy to be working above ground. Mining supported his family, and employed his dad and brothers, he said. They all work for Lightworks now, except one brother who now works for DMEA.
Carver said some of his Lightworks co-workers were also co-workers at Bowie. Knowing their experience and work ethics made it easy to hand-pick good workers, said Carver.
Jeff Wilson worked with Eric Neal about 10 years ago when they had a small fiber installation business together. He was working as a long wall coordinator for Bowie and took a voluntary layoff after Eric Neal offered him a full-time position at Lightworks. He is also a project manager.
Wilson has worked in the mining industry a combined 18 years and is also a third-generation miner. His family moved to Hotchkiss when he was a freshman in high school and his dad took a job with West Elk Mine. His grandfather was a coal miner, and a brother who worked in the mines in Utah came to work at Bowie. He is working in Utah again, said Wilson.
"I really didn't want to leave the area," said Wilson. His wife, Nysha, has a career in oncology at Delta County Memorial Hospital and their three children are enrolled in the Delta County School District. "If I hadn't taken the job we would definitely have had to relocate," he said.
With the DMEA Elevate Fiber project expected to take at least six years, he hopes to be able to get their kids through school before work runs out.
Carver also has two elementary-age children. Kurt Clay, assistant superintendent at the Delta County School District, said he doesn't know how many students have been retained due to the jobs created by local companies like Lightworks that provide jobs for miners. An article in the Oct. 19 DCI said district enrollment was above 5,000 students, up 32 over last year. That surprised the district, since they were anticipating a drop in enrollment.
"It's hard to track that data on a consistent basis," said Clay, since the district isn't always informed when parents switch jobs. "But it would be interesting to find out."
Clay graduated with Eric Neal from HHS and said he's very grateful that the company is providing jobs.
Lightworks also takes every opportunity to purchase supplies and rent equipment from local companies, said Neal.
Without knowing exact wages, the number of workers who have children in school and other factors, it's not a stretch to say that the 62 workers employed by Lightworks will bring more than $1 million in economic benefits to the county, said Delta County Administrator Robbie LeValley.
Because work in the area is limited right now, Lightworks is bidding for other fiber placement jobs across the country, said Neal. Those jobs can be helpful in keeping workers busy, and can provide valuable training while they wait for the other Elevate Fiber installation phases to begin. Neal said that while work is steady, once Elevate Fiber goes into all the communities there will be a lot of work. The plan is to have crews trained and ready to go when that happens.
"Hopefully we can keep going," said Neal.