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Shortage of workers hits construction, operation, maintenance trades

Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

They could have hung a sign out front saying, "Wanted: A steady stream of new skilled workers in Alaska."

Scores of state officials, industry leaders and key employers got together Jan. 30 in Anchorage for an all-day conference to address current and projected labor shortages for Alaskans in the construction, operation and maintenance trades.

Attendees focused on the overall construction economy, labor market information and labor demographics, such as an aging workforce, said Mike Andrews, director of Alaska Works Partnership, a nonprofit industry-supported training advocacy group.

He said the state needs to develop new ways of invigorating the Alaska work force, because a variety of factors are putting pressure on employers.

"It's a combination of baby boomers who are retiring, out-of-state workers who are taking construction jobs and young people who are not interested in jobs in the industry," Andrews said.

The prime reason for the conference, he said, was to get the myriad agencies, employers and educators

and others affected by the issue to begin taking a "comprehensive" approach in thinking about the future.

Dick Cattanach, executive director of Associated General Contractors of Alaska, said the state has a need for about 1,000 new construction workers a year and the vacancies are spread across all areas of the industry.

"Obviously you've got to start at the entry level because we're not getting journeymen migrating up here," he said.

"So we are probably at the point where we

have to grow our own."

Cattanach pointed to a statistic mentioned during the conference by a

representative from the International Union of Operating Engineers local 302.

The average age of the union's workers in Alaska is 47 and employees can retire

at age 52, he said.

"That's a big union," he said. "There's a lot of experience there, and ... we could

lose a lot of very talented people."

University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton agreed with the conference theme of

getting the pieces of the system to fit more closely together, and he said most of

the solution begins with education.

"We've got to have 'K through 12,' we've got to have the university, and the

industry, all working together and talking with each other to get these programs

moving along," he asserted.

When asked if Alaska is facing a workforce crisis, Hamilton said it boils down to a

"great need" of putting Alaskans into the top Alaska positions.

"We've seen a lot of big construction booms in the past, and lots of people made

some money," he said. "But Alaskans made money more in the service industry.

They didn't hold the really important jobs.

"The wealth went outside and Alaskans didn't maintain that training and

experience to continue the boom past the boom part. We want to do it better this

time," Hamilton said.

Also, state labor officials with the newly created Division of Business Partnerships

are taking an aggressive tack in approaching the future job market. They've

launched an ambitious new "Workforce Investment Strategy" program targeting

responses from several key areas of the economy, including the construction

industry.

The intent of the grant-making program is to solicit ideas for high-quality job

training projects including internships; on-the-job training; entrepreneurship;

customized industry-specific training; employer-linked training; and projects

related to community economic development.

Grants will be made available to private sector businesses, non-profits, Alaska

Native organizations, local government agencies, training providers and labor

unions.

Information about the program and application packages can be found online at

www.labor.state.ak.us/bp/grants.htm.

With all the ideas, opinions and statistics bubbling out the Anchorage conference,

AGCA's Cattanach said it is likely there will be a similar, but more intense session

later this year.

"We need to internalize all the information we heard," he said. "Then we'll sit down

and decide where we go from here.

"We'll start gathering more data, and then get together again and be a lot more

specific about some strategies ahead," Cattanach said.



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