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Alaska Construction Academies: Building a Workforce

Empowering employers and students alike

Kipnuk in Western Alaska. Three-and-a-half miles of the Kipnuk boardwalk will be replaced this summer—anticipated labor will be resident hires trained by the Bethel Regional Construction Academy.

Kipnuk in Western Alaska. Three-and-a-half miles of the Kipnuk boardwalk will be replaced this summer—anticipated labor will be resident hires trained by the Bethel Regional Construction Academy.

© Nichelle Seely

Most people don’t need a statistician to show them that our prevailing economic climate is changing. While 25 years ago it was believed that a bachelor’s degree was a ticket to financial stability and a graduate degree guaranteed riches, the parents of today’s students have seen enough fluctuations in the economy to know that to stay above water in changing times requires diversifying one’s skill sets.

Along those lines, employers are seeing that many people entering the workforce, including college graduates, are lacking work skills as basic as punctuality, communication, and assuming a subordinate role in a chain of command.

Alaska Construction Academies is a beneficial resource for students who would like a career in the trades as well as employers who are seeking trained and qualified local workers. The purpose of the Academies is for agencies to combine resources to attract and thoroughly train both young people and adults and connect them to first jobs in construction and trade apprenticeship programs.

According to Kathleen Castle, executive director of AkCA, labor market data shows that more than 1,000 new construction workers are needed in Alaska each year for several years to meet construction job growth and to replace retiring workers, and AkCA has designed programs to help ensure that their graduates are labor-ready.

Data from a 2010 survey conducted by the Construction Education Foundation shows exactly what qualifications Alaskan construction companies are looking for in their employees that go beyond constructions skills: Math skills (including math that directly relates to the construction industry), reading comprehension, blueprint reading, punctuality, work ethic, clean driving record, great professional communication skills and the importance of a good attitude—attributes that have become part of the AkCA curriculum.

Best of all, pending application, interview, selection and drug screen, the classes at AkCA are offered at no cost to the student. As space is limited, only the best applicants are accepted and graduated. Employers who hire graduates of the AkCA can know they are getting the cream of the crop.

 

What? How?

According to the AkCA website, “In 2006 the Legislature awarded a $1M grant to the Anchorage School District and the Alaska Works Partnerships Inc. to implement the project, with the goal of serving 200 youth and adults within the year.”

Thus, Alaska Construction Academy was the result of the combined efforts of ASD and AKWP, as well as Associated General Contractors of Alaska, Anchorage Home Builders Association, Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

Within six months of their 2006 founding, the program surpassed their original goals, with more than 450 students taking construction vocational courses, and more than 150 adults taking basic skills courses for a specific trade, including carpentry, electrical, plumbing, drywall finishing and welding. AkCA earned various grants to keep this extremely successful program going and expanding. In fall 2007, a second academy was established in Fairbanks—and subsequent years saw academies established in Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, and the Mat-Su Valley. At this time, AkCA is in eleven locations across the state, now including the Bethel region, Kodiak, Nome region, Bristol Bay and Kotzebue.

Significant partners of local academies are the school districts and University of Alaska campuses in the respective academy locations.

 

Meeting Employers’ Needs

According to the 2010 CEF survey, 44 Alaska construction respondents were planning for a significant workforce expansion, and nine were planning for a facilities expansion in the next year. Skills cited as needed by these companies for full-time employees were construction laborers, carpenters, equipment operators, painters, plumbers, electricians, HVAC installers, dispatchers, roofers, insulators and certified asbestos and abatement workers.

In Alaska, the majority of new hires traditionally occur in April, May, and June—but the Alaska Construction Academy takes applications year-round.

According to Castle, the market is currently in need of diesel mechanics and heavy equipment operators, and there has been an uptick in various renewable energy projects, including wind turbine installation. AkCA is modifying its curriculum to meet the new job market needs.

“We’re going to be doing a pretty exciting pilot program housed at the Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center,” Castle says, “and it will include some heavy equipment operation, and also some maintenance and repair.”

Josh Sundstrom, president of WillowRidge Construction LLC in Anchorage, has hired a total of nine people from the AkCA, and describes his experience with the graduates as “positive across the board.”

“They have all been eager, and ready to work,” Sundstrom says, “which is more than I can say for some of the people I’ve hired over the years.”

“In general, the graduates are young people who have a desire to pursue a career in the construction trades,” he continues. “This tends to foster a healthier than average attitude toward their job, which results in higher productivity, reliability and job site morale.”

“The best evidence of that is the fact that my current shop foreman is a young man named Justin Rhoades,” Sundstrom says. “He was my very first KCC hire, and also happens to be the longest standing employee of WillowRidge Construction. As they say, ‘the proof is in the pudding!’”

Early in May, the Bethel Regional Construction Academy will be conducting a training for flagging and OSHA 10, and Castle is confident that their students will be selected by an Oregon contractor for a 3.5 mile boardwalk installation project in Kipnuk.

 

About the Students

“At high school level, more than 4,000 students go through classes,” Castle says. Popular classes include welding, carpentry, electrical, masonry or weatherization. “The high school classes are a semester long, and we offer classes after the regular school day, which is very popular.” About 20 percent of those students are seniors ready to enter the workforce.

The Academy also offers intensive after-school and weekend courses. “It’s great,” Castle says, “that we have so many enthusiastic kids who are willing to give up their free time to take an intensive class.”

“We have about 400 adults who take classes each year, and the huge majority of them are looking for work,” Castle says. “They might be looking at construction for the first time, they may be looking at re-training—they might be someone looking for something to do right now.”

 

User Friendly for Students and Contractors

For prospective students interested in taking classes at one of the academies, the application process is simple: Find the academy location nearest you, click on your location, click whether you are an adult or a student, and fill out the application materials. Applications are accepted year-round on the website, alaskaca.org.

Employers are encouraged to contact the regional academies or Castle at 907-770-1826, or Kathleen@alaskacef.org for access to hundreds of entry level Alaskan construction workers.

Mari Gallion is Associate Editor at Alaska Business Monthly.

This originally appeared in the May 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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