Alaska Fast Track students turn pandemic setbacks into career opportunities

SPONSORED: With scholarships provided through federal relief funds, Anchorage residents are earning certifications that will position them for success when they return to the workforce.

Presented by UAA

Jesse James White thought he knew what his future held.

He had a full-time job at an Anchorage nonprofit. He had been accepted to a graduate program in higher education leadership. Then the pandemic hit, and everything started to change.

White was partially furloughed. He deferred his graduate school enrollment. And soon he was wondering what his next move should be.

“I was looking for something to do, enriching,” White said. With the world at a standstill, he didn’t want his career trajectory to lose momentum.

White is far from alone. Alaska lost tens of thousands of jobs in 2020, and many Alaskans are part of the “great reassessment” that is changing the shape of America’s business landscape.

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“The pandemic has definitely made some permanent changes to not only our economy and the United States’ economy but the world’s economy,” said University of Alaska Anchorage Provost Denise Runge. “It’s not entirely clear what all of those changes are, but we do know that the process of education and training actually does better prepare you as an individual to be adaptable.”

And education doesn’t have to mean a college degree. For White and many other Alaskans trying to turn pandemic setbacks into silver linings, one-year career certificate programs may hold the key -- and thanks to a partnership between UAA and the Municipality of Anchorage, these programs are financially within reach for more students than ever before.

On the Fast Track to better jobs

In late spring 2020, just as UAA was coming to the end of a spring semester that had been disrupted by the onset of the global pandemic, the chancellor at the time approached Runge with a challenge: She wanted Runge to co-chair a committee tasked with creating new programs to help Alaskans train for new careers -- and quickly.

“She said, ‘Because of this pandemic, people are losing their jobs, they may need to train for a new career or upskill, and this is a good time to do it,’” Runge said.

Runge’s team sprang into action, working with faculty to rapidly identify programs and map out courses of study that followed two simple rules.

“No. 1, you had to be able to finish the program in a year,” said Runge, who was then serving as dean of UAA’s Community and Technical College. “No. 2, the programs had to be created out of things that we already do. That was the most important thing to me at the time as a dean, because I knew we didn’t have any extra money.”

By the time enrollment opened for the fall, UAA had created more than a dozen new Fast Track Career Certificates, all based on existing course options, designed to be completed within a year with no prerequisite work required. Students who complete Fast Track programs (in subjects as diverse as bookkeeping, phlebotomy, welding, IT help desk assistance, business and culinary arts, with more added in 2021) receive an occupational endorsement certificate, or OEC, that can give them a boost in the job market. OEC credits are also “stackable,” meaning a student who has earned an OEC can continue their education, applying the credit hours toward an associate or bachelor’s degree.

But to take advantage of the Fast Track program, students had to be able to afford it. That’s where the Municipality of Anchorage comes in.

An unusual partnership

Not long after Fast Track launched, the municipality granted UAA $3.1 million of its federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to administer scholarships to certificate-seeking students from the Anchorage area who have experienced unemployment since March 2020 or are economically disadvantaged. Eligible applicants may receive up to $9,000 for tuition, and as much as $9,000 more to cover living and other related expenses, including childcare.

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Course load isn’t the only part of Fast Track that’s designed for flexibility and efficiency. Unlike many other financial aid programs, Anchorage’s ARPA Fast Track does not require a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and although the scholarship is administered by UAA, students may choose to earn their certificate through any of a number of Anchorage-area organizations. To ensure they’re set up for success, ARPA Fast Track participants work with a “navigator” who serves as an adviser and more.

“In a way, it’s kind of like … a really good high school guidance counselor mashed together with somebody from the job center,” Runge said.

The Fast Track navigator helps students determine their career needs, interests and strengths, then formulate a plan that will help them get where they want to be, and overcome any hurdles they may face along the way.

“They’re your person at the university who, if they can’t help with whatever your issue is, they connect you directly to the person who can,” Runge said.

The ARPA Fast Track program puts UAA in the unique position of working with students who are enrolling in programs outside of the University of Alaska system. Participants may work toward certifications through organizations like Nine Star or private training programs -- Trend Setters School of Beauty recently signed on as a partner, for example -- and never enroll in a single UAA course. It’s an unusual role for the university, but Runge said it has been a natural fit.

“UAA, more than a lot of other universities where I’ve worked, we get the point that we’re about postsecondary anything,” Runge said. “We’re not focused just on four-year baccalaureate degrees, we’re not focused on just the traditional liberal arts and sciences. It’s not that big of a stretch for us to connect people to these other kinds of programs.”

‘People wanted this’

On a busy Wednesday morning, Kellie Puff had big plans for the day.

The chair of UAA’s culinary arts and hospitality administration department, Puff was preparing to set her students to work on bakery cart production. They would spend the morning sheeting, cutting, filling and baking puff pastry; boiling bagels; and whipping up quick breads to stock the campus cafe where their wares are sold. The afternoon would be dedicated to learning how to make quiche, cream pies, brioche, pate a choux, pastry cream and danish.

“There is some rigor to it,” Puff acknowledged after rattling off the day’s agenda. “It’s an intensive, so it means you’re going to get a lot of information in a condensed time.”

Along with bookkeeping, the pastry OEC has been one of the most popular new offerings, according to Runge. Students finish with their national ServSafe certification and a strong foundation in bakery fundamentals.

“I call it having ‘kitchen legs,’” Puff said. “Just being familiar with being in a space like this can be very intimidating.”

Before Fast Track, Puff said, she had thought about establishing a baking OEC, but time and budget constraints made it seem out of reach. The pandemic -- and the ARPA Fast Track partnership -- brought it to life.

“It was something that has quietly been in the back of my mind, and then this opportunity came up,” she said. “I was really happy. I was right -- people wanted this.”

Fast Track was started with the hope that it would provide opportunities for a wide range of students, and that has turned out to be the case, with a diverse roster of enrollees pursuing culinary arts certificates.

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“We have students that are young, 18, 19 years old, straight out of high school,” Puff said. “We have students that have been in the industry a few years and want to get credentials. We’ve got second career students … they’re everybody.”

One year to a better career

A lot has changed in White’s life since the pandemic started. He’s in a new job, supporting first-generation and low-income college students. He’s reconsidering his graduate school plans. And this fall, he started working on an occupational endorsement certificate in business leadership. Although he thinks he’ll stay in the nonprofit sector, he can already tell that his business studies are going to be applicable to whatever he chooses to do next.

“A successful nonprofit will consider themselves as a business,” White said. “So far, in the business leadership OEC, it definitely gets you thinking about the ‘business case’: What is your business, your idea, your service, your product that you’re offering?” For a nonprofit, he added, that “business case” might be something like feeding the hungry, providing recreation or caring for animals.

He’s also learning a lot about Excel -- something they didn’t cover in his undergraduate sociology and education classes.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” White said. “It definitely could be beneficial to a lot of folks in all types of careers.”

Although White considers himself a “lifelong learner,” Fast Track appealed to him because of the certificate as well as the coursework. Rather than just taking some business classes, he will finish the year with a defined accomplishment that he can put on his resume. And as a “nontraditional” student, he added, he really liked that the ARPA Fast Track application process was quick and easy -- and he’ll still be in a good financial position for graduate school because he qualified for a scholarship through the municipality’s federal ARPA funding.

“You could be eligible for this great opportunity if you’re a lifelong learner, or you’re mid-career, or you were affected by any of the adversities over the last year and a half,” White said. “You could change your life in about a year.”

The ARPA Fast Track program is designed to help Anchorage residents quickly and easily take the next step in their careers. Learn more, determine your eligibility, and apply online at uaa.alaska.edu/fasttrack.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with UAA. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.