After years of high unemployment and economic stagnation, Alaska employers are hanging out "help wanted" signs again.
Trends are making this a good time to look for a job. Employers say workers need more technical skills than ever, the baby boomers that make up the bulk of the work force are starting to retire, and Alaska no longer can lure large numbers of desirable job applicants from other states.
"I think there has been a definite shift," said Val Ischi, employment security manager at the state Job Service office in Kenai.
"The need for skilled labor is probably our biggest challenge."
Educators say they have the solution: Train more Alaskans to fill the best jobs.
Statewide, University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton has been promoting the idea, including during a talk at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Economic Development District forum on Feb. 3. On the peninsula level, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Kenai Peninsula College and the Alaska Vocational Technical Center (AVTEC) have been working with businesses and overhauling programs to ready students for the 21st century workplace.
"A lot of industries are identifying gaps," said AVTEC Director Fred Esposito.
He and others cited process technology, health, computers, construction, transportation, the hospitality industry and skilled trades such as welding, instrumentation, electrical, refrigeration, heating and ventilation as fields hungry for new workers.
"They are experiencing a graying of the work force phenomenon," he said.
Changing attitudes, reduced vocational courses in high schools and downsizing in the oil patch discouraged young people from entering some of these fields in recent years. Now, companies are bracing to replace those who will retire in the coming decade or two.
"It really is a good time to get into any of the skilled trades," said David Spann, who teaches petroleum technology at KPC. "In most of our programs, we really cannot fill the need. ... We get calls constantly."
Milton Allen, project manager of Udelhoven Oil Field System Services Inc., has been making the rounds to AVTEC and KPC to talk about his company's needs as it prepares to work on building the gas-to-liquids pilot plant in Nikiski. He praised the programs the schools offer, but acknowledged their limitations.
"Our needs are immediate needs. The schools are trying to gear up to produce these people," he said. "They are limited by their resources. They need a lot of help."
Industry leaders are joining educators in consortiums to renovate vocational programs. The oil and gas industry has pioneered the process technology curriculum; state and peninsula health consortiums are developing nursing programs and groups are forming to train a work force for transportation and hospitality industries.
Job Service staffers said public attitudes need to change. Studies from the national Department of Labor predict that 70 percent of new jobs will be technical, and few employers want to train people from scratch. A high school diploma is a given, and post-secondary training is required more and more. Modern vocational education is not a dumping ground for students who cannot hack college.
"We don't want people to continue stereotyping vocational education," said Job Service vocational counselor Harry Lockwood. "We want them to think of it now more as technical training."
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District
The public school district is reviewing vocational education as part of this spring's revision of the district's long-range plan. The district relies extensively on partnerships with Kenai Peninsula College, AVTEC and area businesses.
"It seems that the local communities are putting quite a lot of emphasis on work force development," said Ben Eveland, the district's head of vocational programs.
"This is the most emphasis I've seen placed on vocational ed in a long time. Things are starting to happen that will be positive for kids."
The district has voc ed components that have been in place for years:
Vocational courses: All district high schools have some type of vocational programs. Some-times the district transports teens from small schools to larger facilities, allowing, for example, students from the Russian village schools on the south peninsula to use the Homer High School shops. High schools offer core courses and, increasingly, use technology and partnerships to enhance upper level offerings.
On the job training for kids: The district has a diverse work experience program, including mentorships, job shadowing and opportunities such as Soldotna High students running the snack bar at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Content training: Local businesses have taken teachers in to show them how new equipment and techniques work. Such projects include workshops, such as one in early February at Glacier Pontiac in Ridgeway, and summer internships in Nikiski industrial plants. Eveland noted that Agrium has requested help setting up an internship for past graduates now studying engineering.
School to Career Advisory Committee: The district has a 25-member committee formed in 1997 by merging the Schools to Work Committee and the Vocational Educational Committee. Educa-tors and business people work together to advise the district on work force needs, to maximize opportunities for students to learn about work and to develop and evaluate programs at individual schools.
The district has several projects that are new or undergoing changes this school year:
"Articulated" programs with KPC: The district aligns classes with the college so students have prerequisites and may qualify for advanced placement. Some courses will offer dual credit. The programs now involved are computer electronics, computer information office systems, small business management and administration, petroleum technology and instrumentation technology. The high schools and college also collaborate on welding, process technology (now being established) and a Certified Nursing Assistant program. District representatives have had preliminary meetings with AVTEC about formalizing parallel arrangements in Seward.
Career Pathways grant: The district received a grant in 2000 to bring in activities and speakers to inform students about jobs and give real-world examples of the relevance of what they learn. Recently the grant was extended through next school year. Health care and process industry people particularly are involved.
Regional vocational advisory committees: Modeled after site-based councils, they will provide local input, networking and shape delivery of vocational programs on a local level. The first to be set up began meeting at the beginning of the school year on the south peninsula. The district plans to set ones up in other areas within the next couple of months.
The district is brainstorming ideas for delivering more effective and efficient vocational courses in the future. Ideas coming up for discussion include:
Courses leading directly to certification, post-secondary training or jobs. Such courses would be specialized and customized toward a specific career destination.
A voc-ed facility on the central peninsula: The building would offer modern shop facilities and serve students throughout the area, perhaps outside the regular school-day schedule. It would interface with KPC and other community resources. Those involved in the early discussions are referring to it variously as a "work force development center" or a "vocational magnet school."
Kenai Peninsula College
The college, a satellite of the University of Alaska Anchorage with campuses in Soldotna and Homer, has been working with area industries since the 1970s, said college Director Ginger Steffy.
Businesses advise the school on their work force needs and subject matter. Sometimes they pay scholarships or employees' tuition. They support the programs in more concrete ways, too.
"We've always gotten significant donations of equipment and materials for our industrial program," she said. "It saves us a tremendous amount of money."
The university system is looking to distance learning and restructured programs to increase upper level offerings available to peninsula students.
"We are interested in doing whatever the local economy feels it needs," Steffy said.
Recent changes have revitalized the college's vocational mission:
Process Technology: This new program teaches how to operate and maintain the mechanical, electrical and computerized equipment that powers diverse industrial plants. The program is unusual in that industry requested it and specified what it should contain.
The goal is to replace retiring workers, particularly in the oil and gas industry. The two-year program debuted at the beginning of 2000, and the first graduates are expected this December.
Susan Lacey, an employment specialist at the Job Service, said the days when young people can just talk their way into such high-paying jobs are over. Employers want people who are trained before they start.
"I think we are going to find that clients will have to go through the process technology course to get into those oil field jobs," she said.
Education: The university system is in the midst of converting its education programs. A revised bachelor's degree program in elementary education is under review this spring and could begin in the fall. It overlaps with a new bachelor of liberal studies program on the drawing board. The university is working on offering a minor in special education, an area short of workers.
Nursing: The college is working with the Alaska Health Care Consortium to produce more workers. It also is working with Weber State University in Utah to start a Licensed Practical Nurse program this fall. Within the next two years, the university should have distance courses available here leading to a two-year associate's degree in nursing. It already is helping high schools run the Certified Nursing Assistant program. Steffy described nursing as one of the most-requested programs.
Computers: This year the college began offering classes leading to certification as a Microcomputer Support Special-ist.
Now run through Tanana Valley College, the program soon will be available through direct KPC registration.
Since opening in 1970 in Seward, AVTEC's mission has been to provide vocational and technical training to Alaskans throughout the state.
An estimated 90 percent of graduates find work in their field soon after graduation.
Esposito said the campus has been expanding, modernizing its programs, investing in state-of-the-art equipment and pursuing upgrades.
"We are going to be working toward and pursuing national accreditation in each and every program at AVTEC," he said.
Process Technology: AVTEC helped set up the program but is not directly involved in the first phase. The second phase will focus on maintenance and repair, and the school is gearing up to offer programs in those areas.
Industrial electrical and welding: The school graduates about 30 industrial electricians and 30 welders a year in both structural and pipe welding.
The school is in the midst of a major equipment upgrade in both areas.
Information technology: The program has been popular with students and employers. AVTEC is recruiting for an additional teacher so it can double the program's enrollment.
Marine technology: The school's new show piece is the wheelhouse simulator installed in the fall and first used in January.
"It is a wonderful technology to have in the state. We are proud to have it," Esposito said.
The school partners with Crowley Maritime and the Alaska Marine Highway to train people for varied tasks as skilled mariners.
Hospitality: The school has renamed its "food service and baking" program "culinary arts and sciences," while completely revamping the curriculum and modernizing the equipment. The emphasis has shifted from institutional cooking to restaurants.
Nursing: AVTEC works with Providence Medical Center in training Certified Nursing Assistants. Discussions are under way about expanding to offer Licensed Practical Nurse training.
Construction and building trades: Recently, the refrigeration, heating and ventilation courses were expanded and merged into a full-year program. Graduates will be able to maintain everything from public buildings to ships.
Automotive: Together with diesel and heavy equipment, the program is undergoing a makeover to qualify for national accreditation. That and the refrigeration, heating and ventilation program will be the first two to become accredited.
Foundation Skills: Formerly called the Bridge Program, this supplementary project coaches students who want to enroll at AVTEC but lack foundation math or reading skills to succeed.
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