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Industrial Hands-on Training as a Path to Prosperity

Available jobs outpace qualified applicants in some sectors


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A Northern Industrial Training welding student builds an anvil and forge.

Image courtesy of Northern Industrial Training

Alaska’s employment rate may be on the decline, but there are still more than a few job hot spots within the state’s industrial segments and a slew of hands-on training and educational programs for to help job hunters become qualified for these often high-demand, high-pay positions.

Career opportunities abound in many non-construction occupations—from truck drivers and mechanics to pipeline welders and diesel technicians, to name just a few—and hands-on training and educational providers are at the ready with required courses, certifications, and skill-building programs.

The overall industrial employment scenario, for job seekers and training providers, will likely get brighter given the average age of a journeyman in Alaska is now above fifty—and that translates to a greater demand for skilled industrial workers in the next decade.

That’s encouraging news for job candidates seeking that first paycheck out of high school, facing a mid-life career change, or those whose current jobs are vanishing due to Alaska’s current economic climate.

 

The Many, Many Hands-on Training Options

Today’s industrial job seekers have a diverse list of hands-on training and educational options from which to choose. The list includes higher education, such as University of Alaska Anchorage’s (UAA) Community & Technical College; private sector training from providers such as Northern Industrial Training and Alaska Vocational Technical Center (AVTEC); as well as occupational programs offered by the Fairbanks Alaska Area Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 375.

Yet the list is not as hearty as it once was, acknowledges Denise Runge, dean of UAA’s Community & Technical College.

“There has been some contraction of training opportunities, primarily due to declining state budgets and subsequent declines in support for the wide variety of organizations that provide such training, from K-12 to the University of Alaska system to the various community and rural training centers,” she says.

“With very careful planning and resource reallocation, we have been able to preserve the number of classes offered, and have been able to maintain and, in some cases, even make modest upgrades to some of the needed equipment.”

Joel Condon, director of the Community & Technical College’s building technology division, believes cuts are inevitable if funding isn’t shored up. “We have been fighting to maintain current educational opportunities for Alaskans, but it is becoming an increasingly difficult task,” he says. “With further cuts, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain existing educational resources.”

But others in the hands-on educational segment are seeing growth and greater competition.

“As a post-secondary education provider, I can tell you that competition [among training educational programs] is increasing in Alaska,” says Joey Crum, president and CEO of Northern Industrial Training. “This is in large part due to the fact the state subsidizes so many different schools whether they are state-owned or not.”


A Northern Industrial Training student performing a flux cored arc welding (FCAW) repair job on a plow.

Image courtesy of Northern Industrial Training


Job Demand and Hiring Trends

While state subsidies play a role when it comes to educational and learning opportunities, industry hiring trends also play a key role.

“We have fewer jobs available in Alaska compared to 2013 to 2015, but a demand for people skilled in the trades still exists,” says Crum, noting most calls he’s getting are from employers seeking candidates for truck driver and mechanic roles.

“The skill level and type of driver needed is across the board as far as type of vehicle and type of cargo hauled. The mechanics requests are coming from diesel and heavy-duty shops, as well as from ATV and outboard mechanic businesses,” he says.

Another hiring trend is a demand for a multi-skilled hands-on industrial worker. Job seekers are interested in such roles because they present an opportunity to potentially stay on a job from start to finish. Employers benefit because they can streamline hiring.

“An example would be a heavy equipment operator or a welder coming to get their CDL so that they are more employable, but the biggest trend we have seen is the number of people with bachelor’s degrees attending classes to become skilled in a trade,” notes Crum.

The Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium (APICC) is seeing the same trend, says Martha Peck, APICC outreach and education coordinator.

“For example, the Ketchikan shipyard, run by Vigor Alaska, sees value in training workers across multiple trades. Rather than having skills in a single trade [electrician, welder, industrial coatings], skills across the spectrum of ‘shipbuilding’ add value to the company and increase the employee’s ability to stay working year-round,” explains Peck.

Jeff Libby, director of the UAA’s Community & Technical College transportation and power division, is seeing an increase in the number of students, and employers, seeking industry-recognized certifications.

“Industry partners are requesting we continue to add relevant certifications to help our students find gainful employment within related fields,” says Libby, whose division includes the program in diesel power technology, a welding and nondestructive testing certificate, and an automotive technology program.

The Community & Technical College is experiencing a greater demand for diesel technical and heavy equipment mechanics which, according to Runge, reflects strong growth in transportation and warehousing employment sectors.

“Most of the traditional industrial trades in Alaska continue to face high numbers of job openings with relatively few new applicants who meet the needed qualifications and experience. Likewise, modest continued growth in utilities and non-oil and gas mining supports demand for many of these trades,” she says.

The college boasts 100 percent job placement for graduates from its diesel power technology program for the past two consecutive years and is having trouble meeting demand for skilled workers.

“We received numerous phone calls this summer from a variety of businesses looking for qualified diesel technicians from our program and, unfortunately, we did not have enough students to meet the demand,” says Libby. “Each of our students had already accepted positions prior to graduating. The opportunities for individuals with this training varied from heavy equipment maintenance and repair, maintaining and repairing power generation systems, service and repair within the trucking and transportation industry including the railroad, several fleet service centers, and the maritime industry,” he adds.

In fact, the demand for diesel mechanics is so strong AVTEC has a waiting list of students wanting to enroll in its training program.

“We have wait lists in certain skills such as diesel mechanics and welding as those are high-demand occupations,” says AVTEC Director Cathy LeCompte, noting the school has a 90 percent job placement rate for graduates.

While hiring is down in some industrial segments, particularly vertical construction, there is strong demand in horizontal construction, notes UAA’s Condon.

“These civil infrastructural projects have sustained employment opportunities, and many companies that specialized in vertical construction are shifting emphasis to horizontal construction,” he explains.

 

Industry Change Fosters Program Expansion

Image courtesy of UAA Community & Technical College 

A UAA Community & Technical College student during a hands-on class project. 

Alaska’s robust hands-on training educational spectrum is due, in part, to providers and institutions being quick and nimble to respond to industry hiring needs, according to Runge. Students, she adds, are also aware of the dynamics in the labor market.

“The construction industry has been thoroughly engulfed in the technology revolution,” she says. “The industry has many opportunities to increase efficiencies and digital technology provides effective tools to implement these changes. In construction management we are finding that many students in industry internships are using digital technologies daily throughout their internships.” Industry skill demand changes spur educational program changes, Runge notes.

For example, in 2000 there was a single program at UAA called Architectural and Engineering Technology that supplied the construction industry with draftspersons knowledgeable in building construction methods and materials.

This program, explains Runge, then led to growth of additional programs such as the Construction Management Program and the Occupational Safety and Health program.

The Community & Technical College isn’t alone in its flexibility and ability to adjust to industrial sector trends. The Fairbanks Alaska Area Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 375 Training program also adjusted to meet new employer needs by expanding skill building options.

“Hands-on training is a crucial element in this industry. Our signatory contractors have the ability to hire employees that have had extensive industry exposure through our apprentice and journeyman training programs,” says Training Director John Plutt. “Our training has expanded to meet the industry needs, he adds. One example is a training program focused on pipeline welding to help with the shortage of welders. “Our training continues to grow to meet the increasingly stringent industry standards.

It isn’t just training providers, labor programs, and university curriculums that are helping would-be workers gain in-demand skills.

APICC, launched in 1999 by a group of oil and gas companies, focuses on developing qualified, highly-trained workers and offers degree programs in conjunction with universities, including University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna.

The consortium developed a Process Technology Degree program (PTEC)—endorsed by the North American Process Technology Alliance—and the Youth Employability Skills (YES) program. The latter is undergoing changes due to new industry hiring needs.

“We have since reworked the [YES] program and [are] currently writing curriculum for it. This came about after interviewing industry [employers] and asking what needs to be added to the soft skills. From this input, we have added a great deal to accommodate issues employers currently face,” says APICC’s Peck.

The consortium manages the North Slope Training Cooperative, created to develop and maintain high quality, standardized health, safety, and environmental training programs for operating companies and contractor employees on North Slope and industrial sites throughout Alaska.

It also developed the Assessment Center for the National Center for Construction Education and Research, a national nonprofit organization that created industry-endorsed training curricula leading to industry-accepted national credentials in more than seventy craft areas.

“We have a number of outreach projects to inform Alaskans about in-demand careers and the training/education required to be qualified for these careers. We work with industry to help them with their workforce development. We work with higher education to supplement or create needed training programs,” explains Peck.

These initiatives, Peck adds, are proving valuable to providing employers with a skilled workforce.

“Hands-on training is important. The more realistic the training is the better. Welders who receive all their training in a lab or shop environment are less likely to be successful when hired on a job site where most work takes place outside, where they are required to weld in less than ideal positions like laying on their backs, crawling in or under, [or] weld while on a ladder,” notes Peck.

Such an educational hands-on experience also benefits employers, which often have in-house training programs.

“For PTEC graduates, having an internship with an industry employer between their first and second year of schooling better prepares them for the workplace upon graduation. When a company hires a graduate of the PTEC program, they fine tune the training to fit the job the graduate was hired for, and many employers have a three- to four-year internal training program to advance graduates’ skills,” she adds.


This article first appeared in the November 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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