HOMER — Career in a year. That’s the motto at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward also known as AVTEC.
“That catch phrase is one of my favorites,” said AVTEC plumbing and heating instructor Tim Shearer. “We teach skills that every employer is looking for. And not just skills, but also communication skills, job skills, all those skills that prepare a person to be successful.”
That’s exactly what T.J. Thomas was looking for when increasing the number of employees at Anchorage-based Living Waters Plumbing and Mechanical.
“Honestly, and I speak for pretty much anywhere in Alaska, any company is hungry for qualified and skilled technicians, right out of school with some experience that we can utilize. That is definitely a bonus,” said Thomas, one of the owners of Living Waters.
Opened more than a year ago and with a crew of eight, the company serves Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley as well the Kenai Peninsula and areas in between.
The AVTEC philosophy also fit the bill for Luka Schulz, a 2016 Homer High School graduate, whose story illustrates how Alaska’s employee base is growing through a hometown-to-workplace collaborative effort.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Schulz of the uncertainties he felt as classmates applied for college.
Enter Monica Stockburger, Homer High teacher and coordinator of FOL, the school’s Focus on Learning program, and Cam Wyatt, the school’s career technical educator. Stockburger and Wyatt took time to talk with the student, assess his strengths, and offer possibilities Schulz hadn’t considered.
“We felt he was a unique kid that had the brains to do anything he wanted to do, but we knew we had to find the right fit,” said Stockburger.
As an instructor, Wyatt had witnessed Schulz’s ability to work with his hands, his interest in working independently, the ease with which he completed CTE classes, and his lack of interest in going to college. Putting it together, Wyatt suggested refrigeration as a path to Schulz’s future.
In some ways, it followed the footsteps of Schulz’s father. After attending Paul Smith College in New York, Steve Schulz has had a career in the building trades, with his son often working at his side.
“They did a lot of building things together, tinkering on dirt bikes and snowmachines,” said Schulz’s mom, Sharon.
Her son did fine in school, “but he really preferred hands-on more than anything. So that’s why the teachers suggested maybe a trade school would be more interesting for him that a four-year college.”
Stockburger and her husband Mike are active with Homer Marine Trades Association, a nonprofit whose membership promotes marine-related businesses and activities through numerous channels, including the annual award of a $1,000 scholarship for vocational education and skill training.
Formed in 2011, the association also participates in Homer High’s FOL program. Stockburger helped Schulz complete the scholarship application and, after being named the recipient, Schulz applied it toward AVTEC’s refrigeration program.
He began the 686-hour, four-and-a-half-month course of study in January 2017. Half classroom and half hands-on, the fast-paced program encompasses installation and repair of air conditioning and refrigeration systems, and diagnosing and repairing electrical controls.
Once he completed that program, Schulz then enrolled in AVTEC’s plumbing and heating courses, another 686-hour, four-and-a-half-month program.
“I had learned a lot, but didn’t know a lot about electrical systems and felt I could use some more experience,” said Schulz.
An AVTEC discount for taking the programs consecutively helped with the cost.
Also half hands-on and half in the classroom, the plumbing and heating program is divided into sections on electrical, natural gas-fired, oil-fired and hydronic heating systems; electrical plumbing and heating; and plumbing.
The last week of the class is devoted to welding. Fortunately, Schulz had covered that during his refrigeration study, because in December 2017, one week short of graduation, he was hired by Living Waters.
A division of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, AVTEC offers 20 fields of training. In fiscal year 2017, which ended last June 30, 245 students attended AVTEC’s long-term programs and 1,145 were enrolled in short-term programs like refrigeration and plumbing and heating, according to Rachel James, job placement specialist in AVTEC’s Counseling Department.
Students average 25 years of age and represent 187 communities, with 55 percent from Southcentral Alaska. In fiscal year 2016, 90 percent completed training/education and obtained employment in their field. In 2017, the completion rate increased to 97 percent.
“AVTEC’s mission is to prepare students with career and technical skills required for success in the Alaska workplace,” James said.
Students also are offered help refining career goals, developing job-search skills, resume writing and job interview techniques, as well as what Shearer considers soft skills.
“Our advisory board, people in industry, keep us up to date on trends, advancements and technology. A lot of what I get from them is the importance of an employee that’s easy to get along with, shows up on time, is clear-headed and has a respect for authority,” Shearer said. “Luka fit that mold. He was an ideal student. He really had an appetite to learn, to be good and it showed.”
Looking back, Schulz said, “I made the right decisions, got employed right away and am using my knowledge so I feel comfortable, but I know the right questions to ask if I’m stumped. That’s what AVTEC gave me, the knowledge to ask the right questions.”
Thomas is happy to have him.
“He definitely has a good attitude and just wants to work hard and make this a career,” said Thomas. “He’s setting himself up where within four or five years, he’ll be taking home $40-plus an hour in his check with a whole package of almost $80 with benefits.”
Now retired, Stockburger continues to help students navigate school application hurdles and remains active with Homer Marine Trades Association. The association’s application for the 2018 scholarship is available at homermarinetrades.com.
“This is what people in the teaching profession wait for, the moment in time when they get a call or hear about a young person being successful,” said Wyatt, who was awarded the Association for Career and Technical Education’s 2015 Promising Practice Award and named the 2016 Secondary SkillsUSA Advisor of the year.
He is now principal of the Mesa County School District 51 Career Center in Grand Junction, Colo.
“Career technical education is rebounding on a national level,” he said. “Homer High School continues to understand that and develop that area of the school.”
Schulz recognizes the importance of that local support.
“It definitely made a big impact,” he said. “It was really nice that I actually got a scholarship from my hometown.”
AVTEC’s 2018 job fair will be April 15. Employers interested in participating should contact James at 907-224-6172.
McKibben Jackinsky is a retired journalist and freelance writer who lives in Homer, Alaska. She is the author of Too Close to Home? Living with ‘drill, baby’ on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, published in 2016 by Hardscratch Press.