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EDUCATION: Hawsepipers and Skill Builders

Career and technical education in Alaska


          A hawse pipe is the ring of metal in the side of a ship’s bow that the anchor chain passes through as it is lowered and raised. In the old days, would-be sailors would climb up the anchor chain and stow away, in hopes of being given a job when they were discovered. These sailors would start by swabbing decks or scrubbing bilges, but sometimes worked their way up the ranks over the years, even to command of a ship. Seafolk refer to “hawsepipers” as the ones who started at the bottom and rose.

Captain Scott Hamilton heads the Alaska Maritime Training Center, one of the programs offered at AVTEC. Located in Seward, AVTEC bills itself as “Alaska’s Institute of Technology.”

Hamilton has had decades at sea with the Alaska Marine Highway System and aboard oceangoing ships. He has a lot of respect for the hawsepipe method of career advancement. He says many of his fellow AMHS captains were “hawse pipe sailors.”

The Maritime Training Center offers a 19-week program for certification as an able-bodied seaman or an oiler—both entry level positions aboard ships. This is the hawse pipe route.

The Maritime Training Center also offers a large number of skill building courses, in such areas as firefighting or safety, for mariners already employed. And the center offers advanced students the chance to work on the state-of-the-art Kongsberg ship’s bridge simulators that can provide training for the newest and largest vessels.

The AMTC efforts show the three main forms of career and technical education: 1) training for entry level candidates, 2) training for experienced employees updating skills or learning new ones and 3) “hands on” training with the latest equipment or simulators for advanced students.

The Alaska Maritime Training Center meets the prestigious accreditation standards through the International Maritime Organization, “the United Nations of shipping.” More than 650 students a year have been certified from the AMTC’s various programs. Freshly “papered” able-bodied seaman and oilers tend to get jobs in Alaska’s growing merchant industries pretty easily.

“I’ve got employers kicking down the doors for our USCG credentialed graduates,” Hamilton says.


Voc Ed Evolution

Over the last decade, Career and Technical Education in Alaska has experienced a sea of change. Once underfunded and ignored, vocational education has been getting more respect—especially in a state where many of the highest-paid, best-benefited jobs do not require a four-year academic degree. But they may require rigorous training.

At a dizzying number of locations throughout Alaska, free or modestly priced programs are being offered to make sure these jobs are filled by Alaskans. There are major providers of training or certification programs, like AVTEC and the University of Alaska rural campuses. But there are also scores of partnerships between school districts, employers, unions and Native organizations, like the Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center and the miner training offered at the Alaska Technical Center in Kotzebue. Some Technical Center graduates have been trained as geophysical core drillers to collect field samples for mineral exploration. The State of Alaska is a major funder for many such programs.

“Workforce development was considered (primarily) a social benefit program at first,” says Mike Shiffer, the assistant director for the Division of Business Partnerships at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. “After 2000, it became to be seen as more of an economic development program, which also had social benefits.”

Shiffer says the marine transportation industry, the construction industry and the allied health career fields all have great potential for employing more Alaskans in jobs now held by nonresidents. Trained diesel mechanics are in especially short supply.

In the old days, a person seeking training might be asked, “What is it you want to do?” Shiffer explains that today, with more targeted options, the trainee is likely to be asked, “Within this scope of options here in Alaska, what do you want to do?”

“Attitudes are really changing toward career and technical training because of the opportunities Alaska offers,” says Shiffer. “I wouldn’t say we’ve come full circle, but we’ve evolved in our thinking.”


Market Driven Training

A large part of the evolution of career and technical training in Alaska has been consulting and including industry representatives at all levels. At AVTEC, industry advisory boards for each program meet twice a year.

“We invite industry into the shops and labs and kitchens and classrooms to review the curriculum and the program,” says Fred Esposito, AVTEC’s director. “They provide direct input and we design the program according to their advice.”

One example of these close partnerships may be found at the Alaska Construction Academies, which offer entry level training for both high school students and adults at a number of sites.

“In 2006, Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Alaska, Anchorage Home Builders Association, Anchorage School District, Alaska Works Partnership, Inc., Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development and Cook Inlet Tribal Council created a construction workforce pilot project, the Anchorage Construction Academy,” states the Academy website.

A year later, state funding was obtained for the development of other Academies in Alaska Home Building Association communities, including Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan and Mat-Su. With additional funding from the Denali Commission, several more Academies have also been established in several rural communities, although some sites have been more active than others.

Labor statistics show that about 1,000 new construction workers are needed each year in Alaska and the Academies offer a leg up to workers who want to snag one of those jobs. Students get free training and help with job placement.

Academy director Kathleen Castle says about 70 percent of people coming out of the program are later employed (although that might not be in construction). “The average income for people was $750 higher per quarter than before they took the training,” Castle says.

She says the Academies also offer support to a program called “Women in the Trades.” These are two- or three-week-long intensive classes where women are introduced to various aspects of construction: carpentry, electrical, plumbing and welding, for example. Castle says “the outcomes are excellent,” meaning the women get jobs.

Mike Shiffer says the Academies trained more than 4,000 young adults in one or more construction-related classes, along with 500 receiving more specific hands-on training.


Academy Café

For a month or so each spring and fall, the lucky residents of Seward get to support technical and career education in Alaska—with their palates.

That’s when the newly minted cooks and bakers of the Alaska Culinary Academy operate a real restaurant to show their new skills with actual customers. Consistently, the café receives rave reviews—reservations for the café’s entire run sell out within a few hours.

Additionally, Culinary Academy students have received rave reviews by employers, as well, says program director Chef Elizabeth Johnston, a certified pastry chef who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and Johnson & Wales University. Johnston says the success of the café is no accident.

The Culinary Academy goes back to the days, Johnston says, when it was tasked to churn out camp cooks for construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Johnston arrived at the Academy in 1997, when the center experienced lackluster demand for students.

“(The employers) didn’t want camp cooks, they wanted chefs who also had baking skills,” she says. “So we sought industry certification with the American Culinary Federation. And we started with a brand new program.”

With a brand-new building, state-of-the-industry equipment and new instructors, Culinary Academy students are offered an education they might otherwise pay $60,000 for at one of the more well-known culinary institutes, says Johnston, who was promoted to department chair earlier this year. But are employers impressed with her graduates?

“On the jobs board outside my office, there are always more jobs that I have students to fill them,” she says. “I can honestly say we have 100 percent placement.”

The Alaska Culinary Academy program is 11 months long and fits well with AVTEC’s philosophy of offering “a career in less than a year.”


Intense Learning

What the programs lack in length, they make up for with intensity. Student welders, for instance, are welding Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Attendance requirements are strict. There is a zero tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol.

“We run the school very much like a job,” says AVTEC Director Fred Esposito. “If students can be successful here—and gain the technical skills—they are attractive to employers.”

By Esposito’s own market-driven metrics, AVTEC and many other career and technical programs are doing very well. Esposito says around 90 percent of AVTEC students find jobs, and employers look favorably on trainees.

“Our programs are designed to provide employment opportunities in Alaska,” he says. “We’re looking for people who want to stay in the state with the best-paying jobs available in oil and gas, mining, construction, hospitality, transportation and health care.”


Author Will Swagel is writes from Sitka.


This article is a web exclusive to the December 2012 edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

Alaska Culinary Academy Students

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