Employers begin programs to develop industry ‘cross-skills’

  • The Vigor Shipyard in Ketchikan has 185 employees working on repair and new builds such as the Alaska Class ferries. Vigor Business Development Director Doug Ward said 167 of those are local, with 70 of them dedicated to the new ACF ferries. Photo/Courtesy/Doug Ward
  • Marsha Togiak interned with Vigor Insustries for five months this past winter. Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. sponsored her internship she is now working in Naknek for a marine industrial support company. Photo/Courtesy/Doug Ward

Alaska employer and training groups are taking another step in a long-sought goal: identifying “cross-industry” skills that will allow workforce training to focus on entry-level capabilities useful across several related industries such as petroleum, mining and maritime.

It has not turned out to be a simple task, said Dave Rees, a retired BP workforce manager who chairs the Business Education Compact, a forum for employers and the job training community.

Identifying cross-industry skills is a project taken up by the Business Education Compact as state and federal funding for training has become scarce. It’s now important to stretch dollars farther, and employers are being asked to contribute more of their own funds.

Employers typically do focused, occupation-related training once a new employee is hired, but they need workers coming in the door with certain abilities and, ideally, preparation in some skills needed for the occupation. These are things traditionally left to public education and, at a very basic level, to parents.

For starters, “We need people able to get to work on time, be unimpaired and have no criminal record. It’s really important that kids in high school know these things,” said Kris Norosz, government affairs director for Icicle Seafoods, a major Alaska seafood employer.

Icicle, with its roots in Petersburg, hires many seasonal process-line workers needing only basic skills, but Norosz said the company also hires a wide variety of skilled professionals. Because many jobs are year-round the company prefers to recruit locally, where the company has plants.

There are often difficulties in getting skilled workers at the places and times they are needed, she said.

“Every industry has it choke points,” and for seafood companies it’s often in fields like refrigeration engineers, can line mechanics, electricians and port engineers, she said.

These are jobs that pay well and are often year-around.

In all technology-related occupations, which also tend to pay well, new recruits need math, science and computer skills along with soft skills like interpersonal communication and teamwork, which are seen as increasingly important by employers.

All of these are common to most career paths, and all are typically taught in at the high school level.

But things get more difficult at the next step in teaching entry-level skills in fields like instrumentation and maintenance.

“There are a lot of career pathways that are now identified in specific occupation fields, but not across fields,” Rees said. 

Even within one industry, such as oil and gas, separate skill preparation is still done for many kinds of technicians and operators. There is not enough that overlaps.

Training for some occupations have obvious overlaps. Heavy equipment operators, for example, are employed in surface mining and in civil construction, Rees said, but even the equipment operator field can get specialized and computer skills are increasingly important with vehicles more reliant on “smart” information systems.

Job fields like equipment maintenance are becoming more complex, too. Traditionally most heavy equipment was diesel-powered, but now electric-powered heavy equipment, as well as passenger vehicles and trucks, are becoming more common.

In the future maintenance people will be diesel mechanics as well as electrical technicians. This illustrates the cross-skills gap, the need for trainers to teach both fields in one program.

McDowell Group, a Juneau-based consulting firm, has been retained to help identify common skill-sets but an initial McDowell report published this spring wasn’t able to go far enough, said Kari-Ann Carty, executive director of the Alaska Process Industries Careers Consortium, or APICC, a group that helps coordinate technical training.

A second report by McDowell is being commissioned that will zero in on some of the central questions. It will be published next spring, Carty said.

Much of McDowell Group’s initial research was focused on federal job codes that describe occupations, but the second report will include results from interviews that should be more helpful, Carty said. The intent is to have McDowell Group publish updates of the report annually, she said.

The federal job codes, which are often relied upon in government-funded training, are more related to specific craft skills. The real world of the workforce is one of employers wanting flexible multi-skill training. 

Carty said one model for integrated training attracting attention is a “holistic” approach developed by Vigor Industries and the Alaska Construction Academy in Ketchikan and being done with local Southeast Alaska high schools.

“This is well-rounded and flexible, involving multiple technical skills like welding and electrical. It is built around ship-building,” which is Vigor’s business, but students are finding jobs in a wide variety of Alaska maritime-support companies, many in other parts of the state, Carty said.

Doug Ward, Vigor’s business development director, said his company targets Alaska recruits for its shipyards in Ketchikan and Seward because hiring locally, which also requires training, results in reduced turnover.

The company has found that many skilled workers it recruits for Ketchikan from the Lower 48, where Vigor has other shipyards, find the adjustment to Southeast Alaska’s rainy climate difficult.

The local-recruitment is having results for Vigor.

“As of this week, we have 185 workers (in total) between ‘new build’ (the new Alaska-class ferries being built in Ketchikan) and repair, and 167 of those are local. We have 70 local workers dedicated to the new ACF ferries,” Ward said.

Vigor is helping school districts in the southern Southeast region with pre-apprenticeship programs and the company also offers internships, he said.

“In Ketchikan high school students take courses designed around the NCCER  (a national skills certification program) Core Construction Skills, like in welding, and participate in Maritime Career Day. In Wrangell, students are designing speed boats in AutoCAD and then building them,” Ward said.

Internally, Vigor works with entry-level employees to upgrade to middle-skill and journeyman levels. Vigor and other marine-related companies are also working on industry-wide skills-training initiatives and in 2014, working with the University of Alaska, published a Maritime Workforce Development Plan, a requirement for industry-specific training to be recognized in many federal programs.

The effort was also aimed at getting maritime recognized as a distinct industry in Alaska because many workers in marine-related fields are identified in other industries such as transportation or seafood, and this reduces the awareness of the industry’s importance in the eyes of the public and government officials.

To date maritime employers have organized themselves into a loose alliance that includes companies like Crowley and Icicle along with Vigor, but the group is also aligning and may become a formal part of APICC, Carty said.

To date APICC has been primarily focused on process control skills in the petroleum, mining and wastewater industries (seafood plants also rely on process controls) but the integration of maritime skill requirements, like vessel maintenance, will broaden the organization.

This is important because APICC is an employer organization that is mostly privately-funded, and its purpose is to ensure that the training community, which includes the university and, more broadly, the schools, knows what employers need.

This is new because until now employers have not been broadly or deeply engaged in any organized way. Too often, training policies and priorities have been influenced by federal and state labor agency officials and others, and while well-intentioned this doesn’t result in focused efforts.

“We need to ensure that workforce plans are employer-driven so that employers know they can get the skill sets they need with new employees,” said Norosz.

Tim Bradner can be reached at timbradner@pobox.alaska.net.

Updated: 
08/03/2016 - 1:03pm

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