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Junior Achievement’s Influence

Helping fill Alaska’s skills gap


Imagine getting to meet two of America’s most famous business people when you’re only 18. That happened to one Junior Achievement Alaska student and it changed his life. More on that later.

Junior Achievement of Alaska, a branch of the national organization started in 1919, is a private nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and prepare youth in grades K-12 to succeed in a global economy. Through hands-on programs, it educates students about entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy. Founded in 1973, JA Alaska has influenced kids in more than 43 communities across the state. The organization reached over 8,440 students during the 2011-12 school year. It is supported by special events, local corporations, individuals and grants, and all of the funds raised locally support local programs.

The JA program wouldn’t work without the help of numerous volunteers from Alaska’s business community and beyond: business owners, college students, parents and retirees. Volunteers spend time teaching JA’s curriculum in K-12 classrooms while also passing along knowledge and experience from their own lives as business or community leaders. Professionals also serve on the JA board of directors and offer administrative support.

Flora Teo, president of JA Alaska, says a core group of volunteers have been active in Alaska for years, but the organization does actively recruit new volunteers from the community. JA representatives sometimes present an overview of the programs to a business that’s likely to provide volunteers, such as Fred Meyer, Wells Fargo and Credit Union 1. JA also helps prepare new volunteers to present JA classes.

Since 1987, an Alaska Business Hall of Fame gathering is held each year to recognize and honor those who’ve made great strides in the Alaska business community and their commitment to the JA mission. Inductees for 2013 are Mark Eliason, USTravel; Byron Mallott, Alaska Air Group; Rick Mystrom, business owner and former Anchorage Mayor; and Joe Usibelli, Jr., Usibelli Coal Mine Inc.


JA Programs

JA programs are free to everyone involved—students, teachers and volunteers. In-school and after-school programs are age-appropriate for elementary, middle and high school levels. “The sooner you reach the kids, the better,” says Teo. Neither tests nor grades are given; it’s a non-threatening environment.

For example, a kindergarten-level class includes stories read aloud by the volunteer, along with hands-on activities to demonstrate helping, working, earning and saving. Skills involve coin recognition, decision-making, following directions, listening and teamwork.

Fifth graders participate in a simulated community where students assume the roles of workers and consumers after they’ve completed a series of classroom sessions about business and jobs. This program is held during school hours and includes teacher-led activities as well as pre- and post-on-site experience. Kids learn how to apply information, budget, collect data, negotiate, plan and set goals.

A middle school program called JA Economics for Success explores personal finance, and education and career options based on the students’ skills, interests and values. It also demonstrates the economic benefits of staying in school. Skills include critical thinking, math calculations, oral and written communication, problem-solving, role-playing, self-assessment and working in groups.

The high school programs are more complex. An example is the JA Be Entrepreneurial series, which focuses on challenging students, through interactive classroom activities, to start their own entrepreneurial venture while still in high school. Skills include business planning, categorizing data, evaluating alternatives, expressing multiple viewpoints, presenting information, reading for understanding and weighing consequences.

JA’s capstone program is called Job Shadow and it introduces students to careers through one-day, on-site orientations in the workplace. Skills include analyzing situations, applying information, asking questions, effective communication, public speaking and taking responsibility.


Filling the Skills Gap

The national graduation rate is about 75 percent. In Alaska, however, it’s only about 68 percent, meaning nearly one-third of the state’s students don’t graduate on time or they drop out altogether. Though the state’s graduation rate has been steadily increasing in recent years, students who don’t finish their education are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to find a job. And employers with positions to fill often have a hard time finding skilled workers. Additionally, as baby boomers gradually leave the workforce to retire, this skills gap will become more pronounced.

According to a 2010 report published by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the University of Alaska, about 8,000 students graduate each year in Alaska. The report states that “of the graduates, less than half transition into college and only 18.5 percent will still be in school by age 19. Although some high school graduates will go on to non-collegiate postsecondary training, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is not large. Alaska ranks fifth in the nation for teens not in school and not working…The current educational system is best described as a ‘leaky pipeline,’ losing a significant portion of its students without imparting the skills necessary for successful lives and careers.”

Since the overall number of jobs is expected to increase, where will employers find the skilled employees they need? And what will become of disengaged youth? That’s where JA Alaska helps fill the gap, by getting students excited about life’s opportunities while still in school and by giving them the chance to learn and practice skills that will help them be successful adults, not just in the workforce but in all aspects of their lives.

JA focuses on making their lessons relevant to real-life situations. Through hands-on exercises, students learn concepts of banking, taxes, marketing, customer relations, ethics, product development, profit, inflation, supply and demand, personal finances, risk management—the list goes on.

Teo says that all of the JA classes correlate to the Alaska State Learning Standards as well as to the national core standards. For teachers, this means that when they request a JA volunteer for their classroom, it’s not an extra lesson they need to fit into their already busy day. Rather, it aligns with what they’re currently teaching their students.

Teo says there’s a “huge demand for JA programs in rural Alaska.” Alaska Native Corporations are active in sending volunteers into rural classrooms as a way to foster a higher graduation rate, and hence more opportunity for their shareholders. NANA Regional Corporation Inc. was the first ANC to partner with JA; they send volunteers into every sixth grade classroom throughout their region in northwestern Alaska. Each subsidiary of Arctic Slope Regional Corp. sponsors classes at all grade levels across their area on the North Slope. Kodiak’s involvement in JA has been more of a grassroots effort, with local business leaders, non-profits, the school district and government entities such as the Coast Guard banding together to support the mission and engage the island’s youth.


Success Stories

When Rick Whitbeck moved to Anchorage while in high school, he didn’t know anybody. So he signed up for some JA classes and besides making new friends, he was immediately hooked on learning about business. He was one of 80 students interviewed for 25 spots to set up a business; this after-school JA program was sponsored by Arco (now ConocoPhillips). Whitbeck chose a leadership role right away and the team proceeded to raise capital, sell stock, research the market, make a product, sell it locally, repay investors, pay themselves and publish an annual report. Whitbeck attended the national JA conference that year; his team placed fourth. “It was an amazing opportunity to really learn everything you need to know about business at one event,” he says. The next year, as a senior, he again went to the national conference, where his team won third. That’s when he got to meet Donald Trump and Lee Iacocca. Business and economics have been his path ever since.

Whitbeck joined the board of JA Alaska while he was in college and is still there. He’s spent hundreds of hours volunteering in classrooms and says it’s been very empowering. He says that having a successful first foray into business and having mentors has been invaluable. He’s worked as a member of GCI’s team now for 20 years.

Making an impression on students is not always apparent right away, as Whitbeck learned. He remembers a class he taught in which one boy was especially quiet while most of the other students asked and answered questions and participated in the discussion. After class, Whitbeck could only hope the boy had absorbed some of the knowledge he’d tried to share. Several months later, the boy recognized Whitbeck in public and approached him, thanking him for helping him understand that sometimes you have to give up something to get something else. The boy had put that realization to good use. He’d been doing odd jobs for neighbors for weeks and had saved his hard-earned money to buy a brand new bike, a tool that would help propel him—literally and figuratively—into one of youth’s milestones: starting middle school.

Susan Sommer is a freelance writer and editor living in Eagle River.

This article originally appeared in Alaska Business Monthly January 2013 print edition.


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