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Keeping Cultural Traditions Alive with Modern Skills

Grant programs provide Alaska Native shareholders, descendants job skills, educational opportunities


ASRC Summer Hospitality & Culinary Camp, held in Utqiagvik, at the Top of the World Hotel. Students (ASRC Shareholders) from Utqiagvik participated in a four day camp, learning the basics of managing a hotel, restaurant, and tour operation. The students learned how to manage hotel reservations, create a restaurant menu, and prepare meals for service to customers. The summer camp was held July 2017, in collaboration with Ilisagvik College.

Image courtesy of ASRC

In mid-winter, the night sky over Alaska’s North Slope seems impossibly distant. But for an Inupiaq teenager, it could be the window to a future career.
That’s because Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), headquartered in Utqiaġvik, each year sends shareholders to the US Space & Rocket Center’s Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama. Other shareholders may attend the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) or another of several programs focusing on STEM fields. ASRC also offers a variety of training programs focused on Alaska-based industries: construction, petroleum refining, operations and maintenance, and professional support services, for example. 
ASRC isn’t alone. All twelve of Alaska’s Native regional corporations offer a wealth of programs to help shareholders and descendants learn new jobs and skills, further their education, and learn more about their traditional cultures. It’s one of the things that sets these corporations apart from others in the Lower 48, and it’s an integral part of their dual corporate mandates to create wealth for shareholders via for-profit ventures and to foster shareholders’ educational, cultural, and social needs.
The corporations set up educational scholarships, but over time they also have added programs that provide grants for job training, leadership training, and cultural programs that benefit thousands of shareholders and their descendants. In 2016, a total of 121 shareholders participated in nine different training programs hosted by various ASRC subsidiaries, says spokesperson Morgan Thomas. These programs are geared toward meeting the corporations’ needs in their subsidiary businesses. 

Image courtesy of ASRC

A collaborative workshop between ASRC, NANA, and CIRI. Interns from each of the respective organizations met with board members, executives, and leaders in a round table/Q&A format. Each of the interns was given forty-five minutes to interact with the individual representatives.

Growing our Own

“Growing our own is important,” says Miriam Aarons, a spokesperson for Bering Straits Native Corporation (BSNC), who notes that fifty-one shareholders, descendants, and shareholder spouses are currently employed by the corporation or its subsidiaries. “BSNC gives hiring, promotion, training, and retention preference to BSNC shareholders, BSNC shareholder descendants, and BSNC shareholder spouses, in that order. BSNC descendants receive many of the same benefits as BSNC shareholders.”
BSNC, based in Nome, operates subsidiaries in need of workers in the hospitality industry. They need CDL-certified truck drivers. The construction industry needs workers for general maintenance and for electrical and laborer positions. To help fill these jobs, BSNC provides apprenticeship opportunities in Nome for electrical and construction workers and last summer provided an internship at its Aurora Hotel. BSNC’s summer internship program places interns in its Anchorage corporate office or at its Nome headquarters. 
“BSNC continues to grow its commitment to providing meaningful benefits to our shareholders and descendants through employment opportunities,” says President and CEO Gail R. Schubert. “Our paid summer internship program continues to be highly regarded among Alaska’s Native corporations for the quality and breadth of training provided to our young emerging leaders. The program has served as an excellent tool for recruiting highly qualified shareholders and descendants to join our growing company, while educating interns about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and how their own work bridges our Alaska Native cultures with the corporate business model.”
At Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), Carol Wren, vice president of shareholder development, says the corporation’s overall goal is to increase education, training, and job opportunities for shareholders. 
“In the Shareholder Development department, we become familiar with all of our subsidiary and job opportunities and really look at training that will help us achieve our goal of hiring shareholders within our companies but also in other career areas that shareholders have an interest in,” Wren says. “We have partnered with our education foundation and with our subsidiary operations to provide training that we are hopeful will lead to jobs.”
Those efforts have changed over the years, depending on current needs, Wren says. Recent programs include UXO unexploded ordinance technician training. One of BBNC’s subsidiaries hires UXO technicians on military bases. Apprenticeship programs are planned for an airplane mechanic position with BBNC’s wilderness lodges and a pipe fitter at a Lower 48 subsidiary. The corporation also partnered with Northern Industrial Training to offer CDL training. 
“We hire for those types of positions on the North Slope, as well as some of our construction companies,” she says. “We have done what we call general maintenance technician training, where we look at all the certification minimum requirements to get a job on the North Slope as a laborer.” 
In partnership with subsidiary Peak Oilfield Services, BBNC offers specialized training to operate Mack Supersucker industrial vacuum loaders.
“For those that operate equipment, this is training that we’re providing to folks to gain hands-on experience with that particular type of equipment,” Wren says. “The more equipment you’re able to operate, the more opportunities to be hired for.”

Image courtesy of BBNC

General maintenance tech trainees at SAVEC in King Salmon. 

The corporation is recruiting for an administrative training program, an area with a lot of job potential both in Alaska and across BBNC subsidiaries. 
“It’s a one-year program to prepare our shareholders for jobs in an admin-related position with the intent of feeding the opportunity toward human resources, toward contract administration, toward executive assisting,” she says. 
“So really, we’re gearing a lot of our training program towards the job opportunities that we know we are going to be recruiting for,” Wren says. “We’ve worked really closely with our subsidiaries, the leadership, and surveyed our shareholders for the different types of opportunities they have interest in and tried to align and create those opportunities based on those and their feedback.”

CIRI Offers Wide-Reaching Internships

Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) offers a booming internship program, says spokesperson Jason Moore.
“It is a fairly substantial program that offers good pay and a lot of opportunities for interns,” Moore writes via email. “The idea behind it was to help foster the professional growth of CIRI shareholders and descendants. Since it launched, we have had success with some interns landing positions here at CIRI and with our subsidiaries.”
In addition to internships, many of the regional corporations have programs that seek to identify managers capable of leadership roles within the organization. Bristol Bay’s program is one of the longest-running leadership development programs among the regional corporations, Wren says.

Image courtesy of BBNC

BBNC Training Without Walls students at BBNC.

“It’s a two-year leadership program,” she says. “We recruit shareholders to gain needed leadership skills. We incorporate classroom topics related to leadership and they have a cohort, or peers, that already lean towards management or are already in a management position.”
The Training Without Walls program, which currently includes about twenty students, allows the corporation to help these shareholders grow in their work and learn leadership skills, incorporating cultural activities as well as insight into the corporation’s varied business interests. 
“We talk about issues that are relevant to the Bristol Bay region,” Wren says. “We connect them with personnel in the corporation to learn more about our board and our leadership and their responsibilities. They learn about legal aspects of management and then they learn to develop their own personal leadership style. They do that in a supportive environment.”
In addition, the corporation offers a management training program through which it recruits shareholders for specific management-level positions. 
“They train for about two years in a particular position that we know we have a need [for] across our operations, with the intent of them moving right into that management-level position at the conclusion of that training period,” she says.
Not all the grants are strictly for business- and job-related training. Fairbanks-based Doyon, Limited offers annual grants called Daaga’ Awards to programs and projects that promote healthy, clean, and sober Alaska Native communities. Dagga’ means “get up, move, do something.” The $3,000 annual grants reflect Doyon’s belief “that communities are healthier when Native values are alive and traditional skills are prized—such as beadwork, artwork, hunting, and trapping.” Since 1990, Doyon has awarded more than $220,000 to Interior Native people and organizations.
In 2017, twelve organizations received grants, according to Lessa Peter, a communications specialist with Doyon. Activities included culture camps, song and dance camps, and a cultural sewing workshop in which a woman from Birch Creek, a tiny village north of Fairbanks, taught people how to sew traditional clothing such as fur hats, mittens, and slippers, Peter says. 
In a similar vein, Chugach Alaska Corporation shareholders participate in the Nuuciq Spirit Camp, located at the old village site of Nuuciq on the 800-acre Nuchek Island at the entrance of Prince William Sound. For the past six years, shareholders and descendants fly to the camp about twenty minutes by air from Cordova to learn about their heritage from the elders. Campers gather and prepare subsistence foods, learn about their traditional language, conduct woodcarving and beading, and listen to elders’ stories. The camp is managed by the nonprofit Chugach Heritage Foundation.
In Northwest Alaska, NANA Regional Corporation’s Aqqaluk Trust oversees its traditional cultural summer camp called Camp Sivunniigvik. The corporation provides about $200,000 annually for the camp, which brings children and elders together “to learn and share the skills of hunting, fishing, and gathering that are essential for a subsistence lifestyle.”
Looking ahead, the corporations are trying to gauge what their regions’ needs in the coming decades. In Southwest Alaska, the prospect of development of the Donlin Gold mine spurred an uptick in mining prep training, including partnerships with Donlin Gold, the Mining and Petroleum Training Service, and other organizations, according to Calista Corporation representative Thom Leonard. 
To the north in the Norton Sound region, leaders at BSNC are preparing for expected big changes in the years to come.

Image courtesy of BSNC

BSNC summer interns from 2017.

“It is difficult to determine what developments will occur within the Bering Straits region in the next ten years and what will be needed—in terms of workforce—to meet these challenges,” says Matt Ganley, BSNC vice president of media and external affairs. “We can be fairly certain that mining will increase, particularly projects involving deposits of critical minerals for the technology industries (graphite, fluorite, rare earth elements, tin, tungsten, etc.). However, the timeframe for large mining ventures likely stretches beyond the ten-year window. A premier graphite deposit is in the research and feasibility study phase now and may prove to be a viable project within four to eight years. Rock and gravel production will continue steady, but slow growth until demand increases as infrastructure improvement and climate change abatement projects become necessary. “Answering the need for Arctic marine infrastructure development and improvement may lead the way in the next ten years, as the need for port of refuge and shipping support facilities increase with the increase in shipping traffic through Bering Strait. As such facilities come online, the mining and export sectors (sand, rock, gravel) will expand to take advantage of (relatively) lower shipping and fuel prices and the opening of broader markets for local commodities.”
And more opportunities for shareholders.
Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.
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