It's hard to believe that Soldotna is the first municipal government in the entire state to take advantage of an Alaska Department of Labor program that promises both free education and free money.
Two maintenance employees working for Soldotna's Parks and Recreation Department are opting in to the three-year program, which provides on-the-job training and online coursework at no expense to the employer or employee. To sweeten the deal, the city is reimbursed for the first $7,500 in wages that the employee earns.
"It was just curious that no one else had taken them up on the offer," said Parks and Rec Director Andrew Carmichael, who, while consulting with Jackie Garcia of the Peninsula Job Center, became aware of the state-run program.
"Jackie was thinking outside the box as far as what we needed and what might be able to help us," Carmichael said. "She communicated the idea to us and we all sat together and went, 'Wow, that sounds like an awesome deal.'"
Carmichael approached the department's three maintenance workers and offered them the opportunity; the two 24-year-olds, Jesse Kelly and Trevor Baldwin, accepted, while the third declined, as he already has more than 30 years of experience under his belt.
The curriculum is structured into dozens upon dozens of subject blocks, so Kelly and Baldwin will learn how to proficiently handle all the intricacies of repairing, landscaping, plumbing, welding, and much more. They have to take the online tests and complete the coursework on their own time, but the hands-on portion is all done during their normal work hours.
"It seems like it's a good deal for me, and it's a good deal for the city, too," Kelly said. "It was kind of hard to pass it up; free education."
Dale Hedger, the Parks and Rec operations supervisor and the man who will me mentoring the two apprentices, said he can tell Kelly and Baldwin are excited about the prospect of learning how to do more in the field.
"Jesse's really smart," Hedger remarked. "He has a good mechanical sense; he picks stuff up really quickly. I show him something one or two times and he's ready to go."
The program officially started on March 3, but the accompanying textbooks only came in last week. Still, Hedger is already seizing chances to demonstrate techniques and procedures for his two protgs, and then handing the wrench/pliers/hammer/whatever over so they can practice.
"Every time I have to do something they can learn from, I'll grab them and show them what to do," Hedger said. "That's how they're going to learn."
Kelly has been working for the Parks and Rec department for four years. Back in 2007, he helped with restoration after the Kenai River flooded by rebuilding boardwalks and restructuring trails, which means he won't have to log hours for the disaster relief portion of the program.
"You don't start necessarily at square one if we can document the hours," Carmichael said. "And that's all documented because we helped with disaster relief through the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs grant. He should be able to get credit for that because he was integral in the clean-up."
Kelly said he looks forward to doing some aluminum welding this summer as part of the Soldotna Creek Park expansion. He doesn't know whether or not he will stay with the Parks and Rec department once he receives his certificate for completion of apprenticeship, but he certainly isn't ruling out the possibility.
"My hopes are these two kids work for me for 10, 15 years, because they're good employees," Carmichael said. "But at the same token, my hopes are also that they could take this and move on to bigger and better things."
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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