Report provides plan for future of workforce training

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Coming soon to an economy near you: The Kenai Peninsula World Class Workforce Development Coalition.

Or at least organizers hope the coalition will come to fruition in the relatively near future.

The coalition, which first came about last winter as an outcropping of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Vocational Education, is, as of yet, simply a loose collection of education providers, industry representatives and businesses devoted to revamping the way area workers are trained.

A consultant hired by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District recently released a 100-plus page action plan to formally establish the coalition and begin improving career and technical education programs for students and workers throughout the borough.

However, just what happens next remains uncertain.

The original task force, which was comprised of about 25 local education and industry leaders, met through December and January to review the role of vocational and career education in the district. Members determined that, though funding is a key challenge to expanding such career-oriented offerings in the district, the programs are crucial to peninsula students and businesses.

They also found that many resources already exist, but agencies and organizations need to work more collaboratively.

As a result, the task force established the basis for a coalition to share resources and improve workforce development opportunities for students and workers.

The EDD hired Joe Donahue, sole proprietor of JD's Professional Assistance, to set the coalition in motion. The recently released action plan is the result of Donahue's work.

The report defines the goal of the coalition as effectively providing "career and technical education and training to meet the needs of the Kenai Peninsula area workforce," and says the coalition was formed to "coalesce various disparate connecting activities, apply limited resources and use current education opportunities to focus on creating a 'world class' workforce development system serving Kenai Peninsula Borough residents, businesses and industries."

Jim Carter, who logged his last day as executive director of the EDD on Tuesday, said the plan presents a clear picture of where economic development is heading.

"Career and technical education is the wave of the future," he said. "The bottom line is: Is the status quo, the present, acceptable? It isn't."

The action plan analyzes data from past and present student and parent surveys, interviews with nearly 35 percent of the businesses and industries on the peninsula and state labor trend reports in order to develop a series of recommendations for future action by the coalition. It also suggests a handful of organizational plans for the coalition, a timeframe for coalition work and an operating budget for the group.

The bottom line, according to the data, is that while many parents and students say they believe a traditional four-year college education is important, nearly 75 percent of peninsula students do not complete such degrees.

Furthermore, it indicates that a significant number of "best bet" jobs on the horizon will not require a bachelor's degree. However, the research shows that some technical preparation and on-the-job training will be necessary for these jobs and that many area industry leaders believe high school graduates are unprepared for the working world.

As a result, the action plan offers a number of recommendations, including:

n The coalition must help the school district develop an employment skills program with measurable standards for all students;

n The coalition needs to work with employers and providers of adult basic education;

n The coalition should work with statewide efforts to require employability certification for graduation;

n The coalition needs to implement a public awareness campaign to increase knowledge of career and technical education opportunities and benefits;

n The coalition should work with the school district and other education providers to offer career counseling; and

n The coalition should create volunteer committees to focus on the seven highest priority career clusters or industry groupings with the most expected vacancies in the coming decade which include health services, hospitality, human services, construction and maintenance, information technologies, transportation services and agriculture, natural resources and environment.

In addition, the action plan recommends that the coalition continue monitoring economic trend data and work to create more accurate data reporting mechanisms specific to the peninsula.

Finally, it recommends the EDD take over coordination of the coalition until it is self-sustaining and that the coalition immediately begin work to secure long-term funding.

It is here, however, that a new challenge is arising.

According to Carter, the EDD had about $50,000 in federal pass-through funds lined up for such a project. Unfortunately, he said, Gov. Frank Murkowski vetoed that portion of the state budget, leaving the agency without the needed funding to take over management of the coalition.

Carter said the EDD likely will turn to grants and corporate buy-ins, but it could be a long process.

Also, he said, the process may slow down as the EDD searches for someone to fill his position.

"At this point, we're waiting," he said. "Unfortunately, I'm leaving. I hate to see all this good work put on hold, but hopefully, the next guy or gal will take this and run with it."

Regardless of the wait, though, Carter said he's confident something will come of the coalition idea and the action plan.

"Nobody's ever done this type of survey on the peninsula," he said. "It's a great study. Though it's nothing outside the box, it does say we need to work together, build the clusters and work on the things we do think will be successful."

And, he added, there are plenty of people in the community who are interested in seeing the coalition become a reality.

Donahue gathered nearly 70 signatures on memoranda of agreement, and they are all "big players," Carter said. In addition, entities such as the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, Kenai Peninsula College, Central Peninsula General Hospital and various oil companies were actively involved in providing feedback through the development of the action plan.

Furthermore, the school district already has taken action to make some coalition goals a reality by drafting a career education curriculum, which it will begin to implement during the coming school year, and has pledged involvement with the coalition, in whatever form it takes.

"If it continues to exist, we want to be an active participant," said Sam Stewart, the district's new assistant superintendent. "The district has a real interest in seeing where this is going to lead for the future."

And, Carter said, "The passion is still there for what we're trying to accomplish.

"This is not going to go away. This is the calm before the storm, as I see it."

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