By BETH MELTON and DENNIS DOUGHERTY

For Colorado’s coal communities and workers, ensuring that the workers who have powered our grid for generations are taken care of as we transition from fossil fuels to clean energy isn’t just a goal — it’s an absolute necessity to keep families afloat.

That’s why, after years of engagement through the state’s Just Transition Advisory Committee, leaders in the Colorado Legislature have set aside between $10 and $15 million in stimulus funding to begin this essential work as part of the Colorado Recovery Plan.

While this early, one-time investment won’t be enough to address all of the economic uncertainty in our communities, it’s enough to get started on some of the most important priorities and plan for future community needs.

This funding could not have come at a better time. We know firsthand the hardships our communities and workers will face in the wake of plant closures across our state. These changes are coming whether we like them or not, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to support the workers and communities that are impacted by changing regulations and market forces.

That’s why we’ve spent countless hours over the past two years working to develop a Just Transition Action Plan, and why we feel so strongly about securing and properly spending this new state funding directly in coal communities. Our top priorities are equipping community leaders with the resources and staff they need to do impactful economic development work, and giving impacted workers the job skills they need to land new union jobs, paying the same or better wages than they’re earning now, with critical health insurance and retirement benefits.

We also have to expand opportunities for workers who are interested in new training. We’ve heard loud and clear that many coal workers in our communities like their jobs — they worked hard to get where they are today, and they want to stay in this sector for as long as possible. We’ve also heard from workers who are interested in learning new skills, especially as they experience uncertainty amid coal closures, and workers who know that staying in the industry may mean leaving the community they love. They want to learn new skills that help them stay in place. These workers want to make sure they can provide for their families in the long run, and that means finding new jobs that provide the same opportunities and wages they have now.

To provide workforce training opportunities that facilitate stable, family sustaining work, we’ve got to focus on apprenticeships and programs that see the highest retention rates and train for the usable skills we know employers expanding or locating in our communities need. We can’t wait for coal workers to lose their jobs to get them prepared for the next opportunity, and we’ve got to make sure they’re prepared for the job openings that will emerge in their community in the years to come.

Our communities also need an opportunity to invest in the physical and social infrastructure necessary to attract new businesses and maintain or improve our quality of life to keep our communities vibrant places to raise a family.

The expansion of broadband is another critical investment to bring educational opportunities, remote work possibilities, and global commerce to every Coloradan, especially those living in rural areas. These broadband expansions have a high payoff: when we bring our communities online with the same speed internet as Denver, that’ll be a long-term benefit, and smart investment. This support is critical as the hardest-hit communities look to build back stronger and more connected than ever before, especially given the disruption and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we continue to explore these priorities and others, let’s stay engaged in the conversation so that every community in Colorado has the tools to provide a great quality of life and high-quality jobs to our residents. This funding is a critical first step in investing in the future of workers and communities that have served Colorado’s power needs for generations, and we also need to think about what’s next. We want to hear about your needs and hopes, about the programs you wish you had, and the problems you’re hoping to leave in the past. You know your communities best, and we need your expertise to succeed.

Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton and Dennis Dougherty, executive director for the Colorado AFL-CIO are the chair and vice-chair of the Colorado Just Transition Advisory Committee.