Rosi Johnson of Wilder Construction Co. flags traffic Wednesday afternoon in a parking lot near the Soldotna bridge replacement project.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Looking for a job and a big paycheck, Lacy Ledahl, 19, took a class in Soldotna a couple years ago to become a certified flagger.
Only after paying about $90 to take the class was she was told nobody currently was hiring flaggers, Ledahl said. She said she has given up on the idea of getting a job as a flagger.
According to a local labor union, Ledahl's experience was not unique.
Frustrated Southcentral Alaska union officials say companies that train flaggers mislead people who have a small chance of finding a flagging job after they get certified.
Two flagging instructors from Wasilla who hold flagging classes on the Kenai Peninsula every spring say they are just giving people tools to get a job. What they do after taking the course is out of instructors' hands.
"I discourage most people for signing up (for flagging classes)," said Blake Johnson, president of Labors' Local No. 341, the labor union that represents workers in the construction industry in Southcentral Alaska. "There's just not that many jobs."
Flaggers direct traffic at construction sites and are required to obtain certification from the American Traffic Safety Services Association before they are hired.
Johnson said right now there are about 30 flagging jobs on the Kenai Peninsula, adding that the number of flaggers employed on the Peninsula would probably never exceed 50 union and nonunion jobs.
He said he never blames a person for looking for work but is frustrated that companies keep training people when chances of getting employed as a flagger are slim.
Between Kenai, Soldotna and Homer, there are about 370 certified flaggers, according to ATSSA's flagging Web site. There are more than 500 certified flaggers on the Peninsula.
"It's really hard to find flaggers," said Doris Coy, one of the flagging instructors for flagging classes held this week in Kenai and also owner of Wasilla-based Northern Dames a traffic control, excavation and training company.
"The people that get the jobs are the ones that really want to go to work."
Coy and Jackie Rupnik, also from Wasilla and the other instructor teaching the class in Kenai, charged students $100 to take a class held Thursday afternoon at the Kings Inn in Kenai.
Ledahl, the person who did not find work as a flagger, said she could not remember what company she received her certification from.
Coy said they hold classes in Kenai and elsewhere around the state every spring. But Rupnik said job placement is not part of their business.
"Whatever you do with (the training) is up to you after you leave here," Rupnik said.
She equated the training to a four-year college. People get their training and then are on their own when they finish.
Johnson said the situation is not comparable to a four-year college. People who receive college degrees have possibilities for hundreds of jobs when they graduate. Flagger training qualifies people for a specific and limited job, he said.
"They are training on false hopes," said Mike Gallagher, business manager, secretary and treasurer for Labors' union.
When people want a job through the union, they need to get on a union list, Johnson said. When any given position opens, he said he starts taking people from the list. Right now, he has about 25 people waiting for employment as a flagger.
Johnson said he has discouraged many people from getting on the list. He said he gets about 20 calls per week from people looking for flagging work.
"I have not taken any more people in at this point," he said.
Johnson said people are drawn to this job because they hear tales of easy work and high pay. He said a union flagger's total compensation package with benefits comes to $36 per hour. But even when somebody gets hired as a flagger, the hours are infrequent and the work is difficult, he said.
"You have to have eyes in five different directions," said Rosi Johnson, flagger for Wilder Construction, as she directed traffic for the Soldotna bridge project. Johnson has worked for Wilder for four years.
Patti Curry, traffic supervisor for Wilder, said she used to teach flagging courses but did not feel good taking people's money when there were no available jobs. She no longer teaches.
"It's really a disappointment that these companies lead people to believe they are going to get a job," Curry said. "It's not right."
She said some companies even convince pupils to purchase flagging gear while many companies provide it.
Rosi Johnson, the flagger, said one girl recently stopped by the construction site looking for a flagging position. The girl informed Johnson that instructors told her if she purchased flagging equipment, prospects for finding a job would be better. Johnson said the girl told her she had purchased about $300 worth of equipment.
Coy, the flagging instructor, said when she teaches courses, she has flagging equipment for sale. She said she always informs students they do not have to purchase equipment to find a job.
"Most people, when they flag, like to have their own equipment so they're ready to go to work," Coy said.
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