Legend has it that, once upon a time, a strong back and can-do attitude were all a young man in Alaska needed to snag a lucrative job in the oil industry. Those days are gone, but opportunities still are around -- if a person literally does their homework.
The ticket to a good industry job nowadays is a diploma.
The diploma doesn't have to be an academic graduate degree. It can be a technical certificate. And Kenai Peninsula College offers such a technical training program. The newest, process technology, is on the cutting edge of the new partnerships between industry and education.
Launched in January of 2000, the KPC process technology program graduated its first 13 students in December.
"We have raised the level of expectation of what new hires should know," said instructor David Spann, who teaches the core process technology courses at the KPC campus in Soldotna.
"They come out of here with a basic knowledge of process industries as a whole. ... I think they have a distinct advantage in that they understand the fundamentals."
The school's goal, he said, is graduates who are ready to go to work.
Two trends have transformed the industrial workplace. One is technology, such as the ascendancy of computers and the automation of tasks that used to require human muscle. The other is regulation from agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, that mandate employee training.
"Operators can't just operate. They need to understand how it works," Spann said.
At the same time, demographic changes brought industry and educators together.
Shawn Aspelund, the Alaska hire and training coordinator for BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., graduated from KPC in 1981 and worked as a technician on Alaska's North Slope for almost 20 years before transferring to his post in Anchorage. He explained the situation.
When the Alaska oil industry boomed in the mid- 1970s, the only Alaskans with experience and expertise in the business were a handful of people from the Swanson River Field on the Kenai Peninsula. To meet the demand for skilled labor, companies imported most of their workers from other states such as Texas and Oklahoma. Those employees stayed in those jobs with little turnover, and the years rolled past. Now most of those workers are in their 50s and have 25 to 30 years of seniority.
"People are going to be retiring here at a somewhat alarming rate," Aspelund said.
To ensure a future work force for industry and future jobs for Alaskans, the Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium formed. A partnership of industry, education, community and government leaders, it got together to develop a targeted program.
Aspelund emphasized that although a classic education has merit, industry needs people with specialized training.
"The role of the education is to listen closely to the industry to see what skills will be needed, then work with industry and the state to meet that demand," he said.
"Besides being able to quote Mark Twain, you have to be able to pick up a wrench and do something."
The process technology program has national accreditation. Its curriculum is based on national educational materials, but specifics are tailored to Alaska's unique features.
Spann cited the example of gas-combustion turbines. They are rare in most of the United States, but common here, so Alaska students study them.
The process technology program replaces the college's previous petroleum technology program. The college has been offering classes to train people for industry jobs since about 1970.
One difference from the old petroleum technology program is that the process technology curriculum teaches skills that apply to mining, fish processing, pulp mills, utilities and construction as well as oil and gas industries.
"The process technology course is just the foundation. ... From there, each company needs to spend time to raise a person into a qualified technician," Aspelund said.
But having new workers with a solid foundation, who know the terminology, regulations, communications skills and mechanics saves the companies valuable time and money.
Students in the two-year program study topics such as equipment, safety and functional physics. The studies include internships, field trips and plant tours. Students also need a foundation in English and mathematics, so they take more academic classes as well. Their instructors include people actually working in the industry who provide first-hand expertise and realistic information.
When process technology students finish, they receive an associate of applied science degree. Some students opt to combine the degree with one in instrumentation technology or other related fields.
Although the course can be completed in two years of full-time study, many students will take longer because they work and take classes when they can fit them in.
The process technology program is offered at the KPC main campus in Soldotna and at the Anchorage satellite site operated by its affiliate, the Mining and Petroleum Training Service. In addition, people can participate through the University of Alaska at Fairbanks or Anchorage. Nine students each from KPC and MAPTS are expected to graduate from the program this spring, for a total of 31 people receiving the process tech degree in its first cycle.
Students enrolled so far in KPC's process technology program have diverse backgrounds. Most are switching careers from a variety of other backgrounds and often have four-year degrees already in other majors. Some are still in high school or just graduated. Several are working or recently did work in the industry, but are upgrading their skills to enhance their potential advancement.
"They are an invaluable resource in our classes," Spann said.
The process technology program is so relevant that two of the students were hired before they completed it, and now they are trying to finish the last of the course work, he said.
Although one of the first graduating group is now working in Nikiski, most go farther afield.
"The largest demand for our work force is definitely on the slope," Spann said.
The big draws on the North Slope are higher pay and schedules that allow blocks of free time. As more people on the slope retire, the demand for personnel there will entice workers away from Kenai Peninsula employers in the coming years. That, in turn, will open more entry-level positions in places such as Nikiski, he predicted.
Entry-level pay on the peninsula for process technology jobs in the petrochemical field is about $44,000. On the slope, workers start at about $70,000 to $80,000, Spann estimated.
All the December program graduates from the Soldotna campus either have jobs or are working toward additional degrees at the school. Feedback from their employers has been positive, he said.
"I believe only time will tell how successful the program will be," he said.
In the meantime, people interested in signing up for the program need to hustle, he warned.
KPC has had to turn away people because the classes have been so popular. Organizers do not want to expand the program's size, despite the student demand, because they want to assure that jobs are waiting for most graduates.
"If they are going to enroll in the program, I recommend they try to enroll as soon as possible," he said. "Our classes filled up very fast this fall, and I expect the same to happen next fall."
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