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University president requests support

Posted: Friday, April 03, 2009

University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton will be the first to tell you that his institution is at the leading edge when it comes to providing the state with a quality labor force.

He'll also tell you that he needs more help from the state's leadership in continuing to do that.

"K-12 outreach and job force development didn't get a dime from the governor or the Legislature. Not a dime. You ought to be outraged. I am," Hamilton said to the group assembled at Tuesday's joint Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce luncheon in the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

"People do not understand the enormity of the university's contribution to the workforce of the state," he said, explaining that the university is responsible for turning out a significant number of skilled employees.

Hamilton said the university works with the Department of Labor to examine what jobs the state needs most, graduating 2,400 people with degrees in those particular fields each year.

"There is simply no other institution that even begins to hit 10 percent of that," he said.

He also boasted that graduates are hired immediately.

Hamilton stressed that the university is an integral part of the development of the state's workforce and that in his time as president, 85 of the 100 new programs that have been created require only two years of study to obtain a degree.

He decried however, that focusing on workforce development is particularly expensive.

Instructors can make more in the private sector and are hard to come by. Class sizes must be small for many fields, encumbering the university with additional staffing needs. Finally, the technology used in classrooms must be state of the art and identical to whatever is being used in the field.

Therein, he explained, is the current problem.

"We've got to go back in and say, 'You (the state) need to give us more money so we can produce more of these people that the state is screaming for,'" he said.

The faltering economy has also sent many Alaskans back to school.

This is particularly hard for the university, Hamilton explained, because though interest in enrollment is up, the school doesn't always have the resources to offer enough class space.

"Now you want to talk about a double shot to the gut; lose your job, you're about to lose your job, run to the university and we say, 'I'm sorry, we don't have any openings in the classrooms,'" he said.

Hamilton said the demand for jobs is out there, but if Alaskans don't take them, others will.

"Alaska continues to be, that kind of colonial status where you rent your skilled labor force," he said.

This costs the state and industry he argued, saying that $1.7 billion leaves Alaska each year in paychecks from workers who don't live here.

He also noted that employers have to cover transportation costs on top of regular salaries to bring in Outside workers, sometimes costing them three times as much to employ outsiders.

With support from the state however, Hamilton said the university could address these issues.

"The situations I described to you are not hopeless, but they could use some hope. Somehow, someway, we have got to find a president who can express himself better, or a population who can stomp their feet harder," he said.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.



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