Schooled to work: Alaska programs succeed

Seems like we're all in need of a little good news. Oil prices are up just a bit but the Alaska economy is still a little shaky, and it's uncertain our elected state leaders can get their act together to fix the state's finances.

Here's a little better news: The best time to invest is when things are down, and there's no better investment than in our greatest resource – people. I'm happy to report that our state's workforce training providers, many of these in rural areas, are showing very good results even in times when state funding is being cut.

Most of these are nonprofit regional centers working in partnerships with local schools, and they're having a big effect in boosting high school graduation rates.

[Third-quarter jobs down 9,000 from year before; biggest decline since oil prices crashed]

An example: The Bering Strait School District in Western Alaska has seen its graduation rate increase from 48 percent in 2010 to 84 percent in 2015 and the availability of career and technical education is given a lot of the credit. This happened after the school district formed a joint venture with the Northwestern Alaska Career and Technical Center, which effectively became the vocational education arm of the school district.

In most schools, old-fashioned shop class, in wood, metal and auto, are long in the past, a casualty of budget cuts and a recent emphasis on academics.

A lot of young people, however, just aren't interested in academics. They want to learn skills and get a job. Educators find a direct correlation between career and tech-ed being offered, and keeping these young people interested and in school.


Similar stories come from the Northwest Arctic Borough School District in Kotzebue, which works in partnership with the Alaska Technical Center there. School officials told me that even a single career or tech-related class notches up the graduation rate 1 percent, on average.

What interests me about these regional training centers is that they train for jobs that are in their communities. This is important because youth see people working, and they see a way they can aspire to those jobs.

Ilisagvik College in Barrow, for example, trains in heavy equipment operation as well as information technology, business, health fields and teaching, all jobs that exist in the North Slope communities. In all of these places local employers are engaged, including financially, and look to the schools and training centers as sources of local workers.

In Kotzebue, the Alaska Technical Center trains for the Red Dog Mine, a big regional employer, but also in health fields, culinary and construction trades. The Northwestern Alaska Career and Training Center in Nome trains in health (many regional centers are allied with big tribal nonprofit health providers) but also aviation, automotive, business and even seafood processing for the Norton Sound fisheries.

There are other vocational centers around Alaska, including long-established Alaska Vocational and Technical Education Center in Seward, which is state-operated. Ketchikan has an innovative program operated by Vigor Industries, which is determined to develop skilled local shipbuilding and repair to reduce imports of skilled workers. Northern Industrial Training, a private company based in Palmer, trains truck drivers, crane operators and welders.

Alaska's unions have long had their training and apprenticeship programs and many of the school-connected training nonprofits are feeder programs for union apprenticeships.

[2016 was a bad year for Alaska jobs. 2017 might be worse]

The really compelling success in all this, however, is the track record of employment and wage increases of graduates of all of these schools.

In 2015 there were 6,969 graduates from these regional centers and the University of Alaska's own tech-ed programs. Within a year 5,178 were working, using their skills. Another group, not included in the above data, were graduates of the regional Alaska Construction Academies, which teach construction skills. Of 618 graduates, 491 were employed within a year, or by 2016.

Increased earning ability after training is shown in another set of state Labor Department data, from STEP, the State Training and Employment Program, which helps finance training. Of 2,915 Alaskans who benefited from STEP-funded training in 2015, 2,534 were working, using their skills, within a year.

Northern Industrial Training in Palmer, which has no government money, boasted a 90 percent graduation rate in 2015 and, of these graduates, a 91 percent employment rate.

The wage gains are impressive. In 2014, state data showed STEP graduates earning twice as much as a control group not receiving training, or over $60,000 per year compared with about $33,000 per year.

Interestingly, much of this training was funded through a small share of the unemployment insurance payroll deductions paid by employees of firms (employers also contribute), and not state general funds, although federal grants and regional employers that chip in.

Alaska is one of the few states where employees contribute to workforce training through their own unemployment insurance deductions.

One might ask, why train for construction and truck driving, as examples, when those jobs are forecast to be down? It's a good question but, as state Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas points out, workers now in these industries are aging and many are thinking of retirement. Employers know this, and want to see younger people coming into the business.

Having transferable skills is important, too. Construction is one of those fields where skills are used in other fields like oil and gas and mining (Alaska's producing mines are doing well, actually). Maritime, which includes marine transportation and seafood, which has shore-based processing plants, also demands a broad range of skills. "Maritime Works," a new initiative by that industry, has been formed to promote training.

The economy will always fluctuate in unpredictable ways. What we can predict is that we will always need people to build and fix things, and drive trucks and boats. The important thing is to help Alaskans get the skills to do these.


Tim Bradner is co-publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com.