"Work force development" seems to be a phrase on everyone's lips lately, and with good reason. With the population aging and the economy struggling, many people's minds are focused on the future.
Area educational institutions and industry organizations are no exception.
At a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Blue Ribbon Task Force on Voca-tional Education in December, educators, employers and government representatives discussed the need for an increased focus on training and education for the future workers of Alaska.
According to representatives at that meeting, only about 25 percent of peninsula youth complete a four-year degree after high school. The rest go on to job training or straight into the work force.
That means the youth of the peninsula need to be prepared for their futures in a variety of industries.
While district Superintendent Donna Peterson said ongoing budget crunches mean there will be no new money to build up vocational education programs, she added that such programs are important to the district.
High schools in the district offer a number of vocational education classes, such as wood working, auto shop and construction.
The Workforce Development Center at Kenai Central High School also offers advanced vocational programs for students from around the central peninsula.
Working with Kenai Peninsula College, the Workforce Develop-ment Center provides courses such as CISCO computer systems training, introduction to process technologies and introduction to occupational safety, health and the environment.
The center also provides classes to help high school students on their way to becoming certified nurses assistants and emergency trauma technicians.
"We couldn't do this at four different high schools, so we try to provide it at one location," said Rick Matiya, district director of federal programs. "Kids who are interested come from the central peninsula area."
Currently, most of the center's classes are offered in the late afternoon or evening, but Matiya said the district hopes to shift the schedule next year to allow students to take courses at the center during the school day.
He added the district hopes to continue adding courses to the center's offerings.
"The idea is to offer advanced opportunities for students, to provide courses that lead to certification in an attempt to provide kids with education that is more than just a grade at the end," he said. "It allows them to step into business and industry with an edge."
In addition to the KPC-KPBSD partnership that allows the Workforce Development Center to work, KPC also offers programs to allow high school students to take advance courses toward degrees and certifications at the college.
High school students outside the central peninsula also have opportunities to enhance their vocational education opportunities.
Homer High School has a vocational endorsement program, which recognizes students for taking a series of vocational courses in preparation for jobs or further education.
"Homer started a South Penin-sula Vocational Advisory Commit-tee last year," Matiya said. "They looked a the number of courses they were offering at the school and making sure they offered courses so kids had the scope and sequences to matriculate through.
"If students were going through a more in-depth sequence, they thought they should recognize that."
Matiya said students could opt to take introductory level classes in a number of different vocational fields to meet basic graduation requirements, but they also could choose to follow one series of classes all the way through, getting a more in-depth feel for a particular industry.
It is the in-depth path that the vocational endorsement to the diploma recognizes.
"It's like taking Spanish for all four years," versus taking the introductory class in four different languages, he said.
Students in Seward also have a unique opportunity to pursue vocational education with a partnership between Seward Middle-Senior High School and the Alaska Vocational Technical Center.
Though particularly designed for post-secondary education, AVTEC offers a special high school program called TechPrep.
"When students have exhausted the vocational opportunities at their own school and are prepared and ready to move on and continue vocational training, they can come to us," said Fred Esposito, director of AVTEC. "They are still enrolled in high school, but can graduate with a diploma and AVTEC certificate."
Esposito said he sees such partnerships as a cornerstone of the future of vocational education on the peninsula.
Community members at the school district's task force meeting in December agreed. In fact, members of the task force decided such ideas were crucial to the future of vocational education in the district and formed the beginnings of a coalition to ensure such opportunities boroughwide.
A steering committee has met several times since the original task force meeting and is working to align the definitions of vocational education between educators, government and area industries, to create deeper partnerships to enhance education and training for students and to seek communitywide funding for such programs.
Both Esposito and Scott Krax-berger, head of KPC's department of business and industry, said they see their post-secondary institutions as being a significant part of such partnerships.
"We have to solve the problems in terms of more opportunities for youth, given the current budget situation," Esposito said.
"I think one idea that is promising is like what we're doing locally -- providing opportunities outside what's available in the (kindergarten through 12th grade) world by utilizing institutions already in the borough."
"Work force development and vocational training in our region is critically important now and will be more important in the future as jobs become more technical," he said.
"KPC feels it's in a unique situation to be part of that (work force development coalition). We are a vocational center for the peninsula, and we hope to expand our offerings as needed by the community."
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