Labor Department wants employers to target Alaskans

Posted: Monday, July 12, 2010

At the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon June 28, state Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Click Bishop asked a room full of employers how many of them were committed to hiring Alaskans.

It was a question that cut right to the heart of a problem Bishop sees with the way employers often replenish their workforce by seeking new hires out of state. Non-residents took $1.8 billion out of the state last year and 20 percent of Alaska's workforce came from outside the state.

Bishop said the state would stand to see a $3 billion boost to its economy if the out-of-state workforce was reduced to 10 percent.

The answer to this problem, Bishop and several other speakers argued, is a comprehensive system of apprenticeships and education opportunities for students and adults of all ages that would capture Alaskans early and funnel them into careers that would allow them to maintain a quality lifestyle here in Alaska.

Apprenticeships are especially important given the likelihood of a gas pipeline which, if it commences construction, would be better served by a workforce of Alaskans than an influx of workers from the Lower 48, presenters said.

Gerry Andrews, pipeline training administrator and apprenticeship coordinator with the department, said that while supplying new employees for the pre-construction and construction phases of the new pipeline project will be important, the bigger focus is on filling legacy jobs. Legacy jobs are positions a person might fill for 30 or 40 years, maintaining the pipeline after it is built.

And beyond that, many of these workers will learn skills that, pipeline or no, will serve them well.

"Maybe it's mining instead of oil and gas. Maybe it's construction," Andrews said.

Many of the workers who maintain the existing Trans-Alaska Pipeline System are nearing retirement age as well, Andrews said, and those positions will need to be backfilled with younger workers, preferably Alaskans.

New apprenticeship programs are in the works, presenters said, one of which will focus on training the next generation of transportation industry workers.

An agreement with RL Trucking, an independent Alaska-based company, has produced a program that offers participants on-the-job training as bus and truck mechanics. The Alaska Vocational Technical Center is offering training to 48 apprentices, 12 apprentices for each of the four years of training offered, Andrews said.

Andrews believes that the partnership between the state's education system and workforce development must be strengthened, and that parents and students must be made aware of the career-development options that are available to them.

To make his point, he pointed to the website of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District's Career and Technical Education Department. On the site, students can pick a career path, such as pre-nursing or animal science, and see a complete course itinerary that encompasses all four years of the student's high school education.

Beyond that, the form also lists work-based learning opportunities that are available to the student, and ways to continue his or her education into the college level.

"If it was a perfect world, a parent would see this in the sixth grade," Andrews said in the phone interview. He said that although guidance counselors can be useful in helping steer a student in the right direction, it is preferable to get to kids early and show them a fleshed-out career path that they can follow.

"If you have a high school guidance counselor, they're just filling classes. They're not necessarily looking out for the best interest of the individual," Andrews said.

At the end of the luncheon, Bishop reiterated that Alaska Workforce Investment Board's mission was to identify shortfalls in industries and help fill them. Presenters reminded the audience that a plan was in the works to help fill shortfalls in the fast-growing health care field in Alaska, and that shortfalls in the construction industry were being addressed by programs like the Alaska Construction Academies, a program that bankrolls construction classes across the state.

Presenters also mentioned an effort to help fill positions in the renewable energy field through weatherization programs as well as wind and geothermal power.

Sean Manget can be reached at

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