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GCI program targets teachers to help build its workforce

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 3, 2015

BETHEL -- They spliced fiber optic cable and made a mockup of a mini communications network. They used a phone app to test signals from Bethel's cell phone towers. And they got real-world ideas for classroom lessons.

Three teachers and a university professor just completed GCI's first summer program for teachers, designed to immerse them in the technology and economics of telecommunications in Alaska in order to help GCI develop its workforce.

The group spent a week and a half in Anchorage, then flew to Bethel to experience -- and test -- technology in Bush Alaska.

"We've got a ring of signals all around," Alex Bortnick, an East High School economics teacher and attorney, said as the teachers-as-students checked the readings on their phones near GCI's United Utilities Inc. building.

For GCI, the project is part of a new push to develop and recruit a workforce for a variety of jobs, including customer service representatives and field technicians. GCI has about 2,200 employees in Alaska, and many of the jobs -- including some technical ones -- are open to high school graduates without a technical or college degree, said Craig Mollerstuen, vice president of GCI's United Utilities subsidiary.

Technical jobs for new graduates can start at $17-plus an hour in rural communities, though the salary varies.

More than 200 GCI employees work off the road system in Western and northern Alaska, in villages including Ruby, Eek and Sand Point, and hubs including Bethel, Nome and Kotzebue. And while some workers stick with it for years, there's a lot of churn and opportunity for new recruits, according to GCI.

"As a teacher, I'm always looking for resources," said participant Bob Kelso, who has taught in village schools, most recently in the tundra village of Kasigluk. He just moved to Bethel to work for the Lower Kuskokwim School District as a career pathways teacher. "Now I have resources."

The teachers learned how a cell phone works, the economics of telecommunications in the Bush (it's expensive) and the importance of people skills, including for technicians. They also were briefed on other industries and fields, including the telemedicine program of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. and the video conference classes of the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

The teachers made connections to build on, too. One of Kelso's students from the village is headed to the University of Alaska Anchorage, where another of the participants, engineering professor Randy Moulic, will watch out for him.

Mark Harris, a math teacher at Grace Christian School, said he would like to incorporate the experience into a lesson about how cell phones work. He said he might have his students examine angles and elevation of dishes and satellites.

"In other words, trigonometry," Bortnick said.

If teachers better understand an industry and its needs, they will be more able to prepare students for life after graduation, Mollerstuen said.

The teachers received a small stipend. Their expenses were covered by GCI.

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