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Building Alaska's workforce: multi-industry partnerships prevail with Alaska Construction Academies.

While state lawmakers and energy companies work to develop a multibillion-dollar natural gas pipeline, industry leaders and educators are building a different kind of pipeline. It's not made with steel, but it's designed to address a critical shortage--one that could impact Alaska business for years to come.

"It's a career cluster," says Daniel Domke, director of career and technical education (CTE) for the Fairbanks-North Star Borough School District. "It's a well-choreographed curriculum that starts in high school."

Workforce Training

With collaboration between local school districts, the Alaska Legislature, and Alaska Construction Academies, students have access to a pipeline of opportunity between high school, vocational training, and employment. In Fairbanks, Hutchison High School recently introduced a new Heavy Equipment Operator (HEO) program after about a year's worth of planning. The HEO pathway--complete with brand new, high-end, scenario-based, graphic simulators--is designed to introduce students to construction careers and help fill looming shortages in Alaska's workforce.

Hutcheson's simulator lab serves students from the local high school and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College. Domke says the simulators themselves are fully customizable: They can act as motor graders, bulldozers, and front-end loaders. In Alaska, the ability to operate heavy machinery like that can be a valuable skill--opening the door to jobs in some of the state's most lucrative businesses.

"That occupation goes across all industries. It's union, it's non-union; it's with construction, it's at the big mines," Domke says. "It's a demand that's across the board."

That demand is one of the main reasons Fairbanks-North Star Borough School District decided to pursue the heavy machinery program in cooperation with the Alaska Construction Academy (ACA). It's also one of the driving factors behind the Alaska Construction Academy, a statewide training program formed in 2006 by a coalition of local stakeholders.

Those stakeholders include the Association of General Contractors, Alaska Home Builders Association, the Anchorage School District, Cook Inlet Tribal Council, the Alaska Legislature Alaska Works Partnership, Inc., and the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The Construction Education Foundation--an Alaska nonprofit that aims to facilitate construction workforce training and development--also plays a major role in making ACA a reality.

Growing ACA Program

Eight years after ACA began it now operates in eleven communities statewide.

Kathleen Castle, ACA's executive director, says the first construction academy took place in Anchorage with a $1 million grant from the Alaska Legislature. In the second year, it spread to five additional sites, and in 2008 the academies received several million additional dollars in state funding.

These days, ACA operates in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, the Kenai Peninsula, the Matanuska Valley, Kodiak, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, and Dillingham. The latter five locations are regional programs, serving students from multiple surrounding communities including Kivalina, Buckland, Kiana, Noatak, Ambler, Kotzebue, Selawik, Tuntutuliak, Kongiganak, Akiak, and beyond.

The program has a wide reach, but Castle says it goes to meet a steep demand.

Labor market data shows Alaska needs approximately one thousand new construction employees annually in order to meet demand, she says.

According to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the construction industry is expected to grow by more than 6 percent by 2022. Building construction in particular is expected to grow by more than 14 percent, the department states in its October 2014 economic trends report.

When ACA was founded in 2006, Castle says, it was a different market. High school shops were being turned into computer labs, and many students were encouraged to pursue four-year college degrees. Meanwhile, one of the state's most vital industries was struggling to find qualified employees. Castle says ACA was founded to bridge that divide.

"We want young people to know that there are these wonderful careers where they won't have to pay $50,000 for additional training," she says.

Expanded Career Options

In Fairbanks, those future career options make Domke excited about the potential of Hutchison's new simulator lab.

He said the school district's CTE department aims to train students in "high wage, high skill, high demand occupations," and the heavy equipment program fits the bill perfectly.

"Geographically, Fairbanks is the hub for a lot of industries that employ a lot of HEO [heavy equipment operations] workers," Domke says.

There's work to be had for people who know how to operate or maintain the equipment that builds roads, mines, and oil and gas projects. In fact, construction careers are some of the hidden supports crucial to many of Alaska's most profitable industries.

"When you're putting a mine together, 90 percent of the jobs are construction," Castle says.

That's where ACA comes into play.

At Hutchison's new simulator lab, Domke says, students learn how to cut a grade, load a dump truck, and other fundamental skills. While the program hoped to attract at least twelve students in its first year, it ultimately enrolled eighteen--50 percent above expectations.

Domke described the fledgling program as a seamless experience-launched in cooperation with a handful of vital partners--that allows students to develop a host of skill sets. High school students that study heavy equipment at Hutchison can further their education at UAF's Community and Technical College, which employs the same simulators. It's all about building muscle memory and foundational skills.

"I would compare it to the training of a professional pilot," Domke says.

And, like pilots, construction industry workers are an important part of Alaska's economy.

Castle says the Hutchison HEO program was piloted based on heavy industry demand, and the construction academy is thrilled with the initial interest. While the impending shortages in Alaska's construction workforce aren't entry level positions, the training has to start somewhere.

"If somebody goes in, they start out as a new entry level operator--six years from now they're going to be the person companies are trying to court away," Castle says.

By giving students the foundation to begin a career in a construction-related field, she says, ACA is working to build the state well into the future.

Successful Results

According to the McDowell Group, ACA's multi-partner approach is working.

The Juneau-based consulting firm released an independent review of the program in 2009 and concluded that the construction academy's industry-driven structure seems to be a success. The report acknowledged that, at the time, the program was still too new to see any long-term effects, but both students and contractors appeared to value the real-world opportunities the academy provided.

"There is demand among both trainees and employers for this type of entry-level preparation," the McDowell Group wrote. "Employers value the fact that AkCA [Alaska Construction Academy] graduates have demonstrated that they are motivated and aware of employer expectations in addition to being trained in basic skills."

The employer payoff is one of the reasons Alaska businesses are throwing their support behind ACA and its various programs around the state.

"It meets the needs of the students, it meets the needs of business and industry, and it's done through collaboration," Domke says.

Collaboration is Key

Across Alaska, the entire ACA concept is based on collaboration: between educators, nonprofits, and industry.

Castle says it's one of the keys to the academies' success.

While technical training programs run by school districts themselves can be unwieldy and slow to react to ever-changing markets, the construction academy is able to adapt quickly to the needs of Alaska businesses. The model is simple, Castle says.

By operating under contract as a high school student or adult training provider, Castle says ACA funds programs in schools directly, rather than relying on government dollars appropriated to school districts. It gives the construction academies important leverage within Alaska schools.

"We can dictate what kinds of things they have to do," Castle says. "We can change on a dime, which we have."

Domke sees it as the path to CTE development in Fairbanks schools.

"It is the way that CTE is going to move--there are so many opportunities out there that we simply can't replicate at the high school level sometimes," he says. "The educational system in Alaska needs to continue to morph with those changes. The caliber of student that comes to the public school now; they're the smartest, most well-educated kids we've seen come into the high school."

After debuting the HEO program to resounding popularity, Domke says he hopes to bring three additional simulators to the district following a planned expansion at North Pole High School. Training with the simulators gives students a solid foundation in equipment operations.

Domke says it's all part of providing a pipeline of employment potential.

Too often, he says, students are pushed to become "college ready" without necessarily becoming "career ready." The CTE department and HEO pathway in Fairbanks aim to encourage both. Students who study diesel mechanics and heavy equipment operations at Hutchison can go on to earn a certification at UAF's Community and Technical College, Domke says. They'd also have the basic skills necessary to work for a local construction company, mining operation, or transportation project.

"It's a win-win," he says.

'Great Opportunity'

The idea of career readiness--which buoys up the fledgling HEO pathway at Hutchison High School--can also be found in other ACA programs across Alaska.

In Anchorage, where the construction academies first began, the Anchorage School District is expanding opportunities all the way to the middle school level. CTE Director Diane Maple called it a valuable "opportunity to experience exposure to the workplace."

Last year, Maple says, the school district used state funds to purchase twenty welding simulators and twenty portable simulators, which were then used to pilot heavy equipment education within four local middle schools.

Maple says the new simulators in Anchorage are intended to give students a hands-on, career-based learning experience, like those at Hutchison.

"We intentionally purchased the simulators so we could broaden out our construction program," she says.

Currently, she says, the district's CTE program includes construction academies within Anchorage middle and high schools. It focuses on exposing students to experiences and opportunities that might not otherwise fit into a standard school day, Maple says. It emphasizes fields in which students could achieve a two-year degree or certificate.

While Fairbanks educators strive to stress career readiness through their CTE program, Maple says she doesn't believe it's a standalone pursuit.

Students involved in the Anchorage School District's construction program learn there's more to it than just climbing behind a wheel; they learn math skills, physics principles, and other academic topics pertinent to heavy equipment operation and construction trades, Maple says.

It's about preparing students for success on the job and in school.

"Career-ready kind of envelops college-ready as well," she says. "To me, it's all career-ready. Certainly, what we're doing is trying to strengthen the technical side."

Like other similar programs around the state, Anchorage schools' construction academies are funded by a grant from the Construction Education Foundation. Maple says the grant served about 1,800 students in 2010. Last year, it helped train about 2,400.

"One of the biggest growths has been that seven to twelve [grade] connection--engaging students in middle school," Maple says. "It's certainly been helpful to continue to keep that pathway in place."

Maple says there's still plenty of opportunity for growth. As industry needs continue to propel educational opportunities for Alaska students, she says, the partnerships behind ACA prop up a promising system. Now, she says, she'd like to see the financial commitments necessary to sustain the burgeoning program for a couple more years.

"I think this is a great opportunity to see it expand," Maple says. "The funding supports a great model."

It's a model that brings real-world rewards for Alaska businesses and students alike.

Hands-On, Utilitarian Learning

In Kodiak, where ACA helps fund a small but well-loved construction program, Kodiak Island Borough School District CTE Coordinator Barry Altenhof has seen those rewards firsthand.

"The construction academies have become very popular," says Altenhof, who added that from ten to twelve students have participated annually for the last four or five years.

"It's a practical experience, it's a skill-building experience, and it gives them a taste of the real world," he says.

One student in particular--class of 2014 graduate Tatiana Schneider--participated in the school's drafting program for four years. Last year, Altenhof says, she claimed the top prize in a prestigious statewide drafting competition for Alaska high school students.

"She's wearing two hats, really," Altenhof says of his former student, now a freshman at Eastern Washington University. "She's a competent designer, and she's also really interested in hands-on construction experience."

That interest led Schneider to pursue an internship with Watterson Construction in Kodiak. Then, when she graduated from high school in June, Altenhof says, the local construction firm hired her right away, and she began work on an improvement project at Kodiak High School.

"I think this was a combination of luck and good timing," Altenhof says.

"The pieces fell into place very easily for Tatiana. She's a bright young lady and she's very interested in construction."

He says her story is a perfect example of the work ACA strives to achieve.

"If ever there was a poster child for Construction Academy success, this is it," Altenhof says.

Akin to programs in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Altenhof says Kodiak's construction program focuses on hands-on, utilitarian learning. Two years ago students built greenhouses. The CTE coordinator says they try to complete projects that give back to their community.

It's all about relationships, he says-especially with local business and industry groups. "The stronger those relationships become, the more effective we can be," Altenhof says.

All told, the island school district offers ten different career and technical programs, including construction. The fishing community of Kodiak doesn't have a large construction base, but Altenhof says students can use their newfound skills on a variety of different jobs. They can go to work at a lumber yard or as a concrete worker or pipefitter.

"There's obviously an immediate need for basic, entry-level skill positions in the Alaska workforce," Altenhof says.

Ultimately, he says, he hopes to see career education opportunities continue to develop and thrive throughout his district.

"I'd like to see both students, parents, and teachers recognize the immediate value of skill-building in high school classes, so students have a real option for work when they leave high school," he says.

That's really what the ACA strives to accomplish, Castle says: employment options for Alaskans and a way to fill the gaping need for skilled workers within Alaska's construction industry.

"I see it as a workforce pipeline," says Domke.

Based on the instant popularity of the new program at Hutchison High School, the meteoric spread of the construction academy model into schools around the state, and the success of ACA students like Tatiana Schneider, educators and industry proponents are calling it a success.

Kirsten Swann is an independent journalist based in Anchorage.
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Comment:Building Alaska's workforce: multi-industry partnerships prevail with Alaska Construction Academies.(TRANSPORTATION & CONSTRUCTION)
Author:Swann, Kirsten
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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