Calista, Air Carriers launch apprenticeship programs
Just because Alaska’s economy has taken a few shots to the chin lately hasn’t changed the state’s long-term need for an increasingly skilled workforce.
Recognizing that, Calista Corp. and the Alaska Air Carriers Association have simultaneously been developing separate apprenticeship programs.
While the Air Carriers’ industry of focus is pretty self-explanatory, Calista’s efforts are geared toward one of Alaska’s oldest industries: the maritime trades.
Calista Human Resources Director Heather Spear said the Western Alaska Native regional corporation is turning to Brice Marine LLC, its Anchorage-based subsidiary that offers tug and barge services throughout the state, to jumpstart its maritime apprenticeship program.
The genesis for the program comes from a companywide emphasis on workforce development that started a couple years ago, according to Spear.
And after looking at the profile of Brice personnel it became clear that the “graying of the fleet,” an issue for the maritime industry nationwide, was going to hit Brice Marine with many of the company’s employees readying for retirement in the next 10 years, she added.
A subsequent search for applicable waterborne training found the nearest apprenticeship program is in Washington, so Calista started talking with Alaska companies and instructors to provide an avenue for prospective Alaskan mariners to take classes closer to home.
That led to a partnership with AVTEC, the state’s vocational training center in Seward, which just happens to have top-notch, Coast Guard-approved maritime courses that attract students from all over the world.
Spear said Calista will act as the intermediary between prospective mariners and employers. The students will be put through Calista’s pre-employment process so they are ready when the right company comes calling.
It’s a program that will be open to all Alaskans, not just Calista shareholders.
“We’re not focusing on any certain age group, as long as they can pass the physical and get on the boat and meet all the qualifications of the apprenticeship program they’re eligible to apply,” Spear noted.
Calista launched a website for the program in early January, www.akmaritimeapp.com, and will be taking applications soon to get aspiring mariners in classrooms and on boats this spring.
Spear said Calista has committed to sponsoring four apprentices per year and helping with training costs. At least one of those apprentices will be on Brice boats this coming summer, given the parent-subsidiary relationship, she said.
Moreover, Calista is opening the program to any other companies in the maritime trade that want to use the framework the company set up to train their own workers through AVTEC, Spear said, and if the model proves successful it could easily spawn programs in other Alaska industries lacking skilled professionals.
AVTEC Maritime Department Head Capt. Terry Federer called it “cutting edge” for a private company to sponsor a federally-registered apprenticeship program not only for its benefit, but also for the greater benefit of the state — and even potential competitors.
He said AVTEC is deeply involved with industry in all of its programs but he is not aware of any other such arrangements in the maritime sector anyway.
“(Calista) is actively seeking industry partners so that they have places to put these folks, or these potential mariners, on ships to get their initial sea time. We’re excited to work with them on this project,” Federer said.
According to Spear, the program was first aimed only at training able-bodied seamen but grew into three employment tracks after it became clear Alaska’s maritime companies also needed engineers and galley help.
The three career “voyage paths,” as Calista is calling them, each have three tiers of training that end with mate, assistant engineer and chief galley cook certifications, depending on the track.
Calista and AVTEC have also augmented the traditional apprenticeship setup of alternating class and work time to include a subsistence block for apprentices that want or need to continue that part of their lifestyle. Companies hiring apprentices on the classroom-sea service-subsistence rotation will so accepting the alternative schedule up front.
Spear said making time for subsistence activities in the program is simply an acknowledgment of the way of life for many Alaskans and opens the training opportunity up to more people.
“You start losing a lot of people because (subsistence) feeds their families for the year, so we need to be able to allow time for that because if they do a traditional apprenticeship program they don’t get that time off,” she said.
Tier 1 apprentices working toward their first endorsements will likely need just a week or two of coursework before getting on a vessel and earning sea time, Federer said.
Those mariners that make it through the initial training should be in line for jobs that pay between $45,000 and $60,000 per year, usually for six months of hard work, he added.
“Considering you’re only working for six months out of the year it’s not a bad way to start out,” he said.
Additionally, Federer noted that many coastal Alaskans have already met sea service time requirements — 180 recorded days at-sea is often needed for endorsements before training — through their normal day-to-day activities.
“You can start gathering sea service from the age of 16 on and it can be on boats as small as skiffs; so to get your entry level credentials, to get your able seamen or even your qualified member of the engine room department really, some of that sea service can come from very small vessels that are used for pleasure, not really for work,” he said.
The Alaska Air Carriers Association is also looking for ways to fill jobs that need skilled workers, particularly in rural Alaska, Executive Director Jane Dale said.
The aviation apprenticeship program, also registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, will focus on three employment tracks — pilot, airframe and power plant, or A&P mechanic, and flight dispatcher.
Dale said the trade group held workshops in November in which industry defined what it wants from its employees to inform course development.
While pilots and A&P mechanics obviously must ultimately get their licenses through the Federal Aviation Administration there is no requirement for dispatchers at small flight service companies and what each company wants from its pilots and mechanics can vary, too.
A dispatcher at an Alaska flight service is often called upon to do anything from provide customer service to manage a plane’s cargo weight and balance, “just all kinds of things,” Dale said.
“Each company is a little bit different but the graduates of that full curriculum will be able to work at any of the carriers and do all of those skills, so it’s really exciting,” she said.
The A&P apprenticeship will formalize the 30 months of on-the-job training flight service and support companies often provide so employees can then petition the FAA to test for their A&P license, Dale added.
Hopeful pilots in Fairbanks and Anchorage have access to university programs; rural trainees will have to either relocate or take courses online through other education outlets — Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, for example.
The AACA is working with workforce training centers across the state to identify what types of initial courses, such as ground school, can be done where.
“This idea of partnerships is almost just as important as the apprenticeship itself,” Dale said.
The association is planning to roll out the program at its annual convention in Anchorage in late February.
“Our trade show is free to the public so we want everybody coming to the trade show and visiting with carriers and all the other aviation groups and learn what each group is offering,” she said.
Danny Seybert, CEO of the regional Anchorage-based carrier PenAir said Alaska’s intense reliance on air travel — much of it through small businesses — makes ensuring there is an adequate supply of skilled people for the industry to draw from a constant pressure.
On top of that, recent FAA regulatory changes have made certifying pilots to fly for regional carriers, which are abundant in Alaska, all the more challenging, according to Seybert.
“We’ll fully participate in helping set up the programs, helping attract people, advertising it and then helping them implement the program; and then as students come through the programs we will be hiring them at PenAir,” Seybert said.
Alaska Department of Labor Employment and Training Services Director Ed Flanagan said there are multiple sources of state and federal employment training funding; it just depends whether an individual qualifies.
The federal Labor Department has Dislocated Worker funds often available for those drawing unemployment.
The State of Alaska also offers financial assistance applicable to apprenticeships through the State Training and Employment Program, or STEP. It is funded through a small diversion of unemployment insurance tax and is given in grants to training entities but also to individual trainees, Flanagan said.
“STEP is pretty broad; the main requirement is that the applicant must have basically worked a job that was covered by unemployment insurance and paid into the fund at some time in the previous five years,” he said further.
Those personal career training assistance programs would work for any apprenticeship program.
For younger job seekers or others who may not qualify for the aforementioned assistance, Dale said the AACA, with the help from the state Labor Department, is looking into other federal Labor grant options that could flow through the trade association to apprenticeship participants and offer more consistent aid.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at email@example.com.