Vigor works to cut turnover by training local workforce

  • The second half of the ferry Tazlina is in the process of modular construction at the Vigor Industrial shipyard in Ketchikan. (Photo/Courtesy Vigor Industrial/Felix Wong)
  • From left to right, Chad Silvertson, Doug Ward, Sierra Callis and Aaron Shay look over the bow of the ferry Tazlina under construction in Ketchikan. (Photo/Courtesy Vigor Industrial/Hall Anderson)

Vigor Industrial, operator of shipyards in Ketchikan and Seward, has embraced training of a local workforce as its key strategy in reducing a costly problem with turnover of skilled workers, company officials say.

In 2015, with a $101 million contract in hand to build two new, 280-foot state ferries and an increasing workload from the fishing industry, Vigor experienced a 46 percent turnover.

Within a year, Vigor managed to reduce that rate to 23 percent, and the downward trend continues in 2017, said Doug Ward, Vigor’s manager of Alaska business development. In 2016 Vigor employed 191 people in Ketchikan, with the number steadily growing as the shipyard attracted more business.

Ward said Vigor’s key strategy in reducing turnover is an intensive focus on growing the resident skilled workforce, mostly by upgrading skills of people already working in the shipyard.

The company has brought in new local recruits, too, a result of Vigor’s on-the-job training for entry workers and its involvement with the Alaska Construction Academy, which offers instruction and certifications in construction and shipyard skills.

Last January, Vigor announced an expansion of its efforts through Maritime Works, a coalition of Alaska marine industries aimed at fostering workforce development in the state’s big maritime sector, including the seafood industry.

The expansion of Vigor’s program in Ketchikan is the first initiative under the Maritime Works initiative, although other partners in the group also have efforts underway.

Ward said a special feature of Vigor’s program is an expanded use of technology on the shop floor, in this case apps on mobile cellphones that have increased productivity and improved safety at the Ketchikan shipyard. This year the procedure is being expanded to the training programs.

In safety, workers with apps loaded in their cellphones photograph potential safety problems and distribute them instantly for corrective action, if that is needed, Ward said. The procedure helped Vigor reduce its recordable injury incidents from about 13 three years ago to 1.8 in 2016, he said.

A similar gain, this time in productivity, resulted when Vigor applied the cellphone apps to design changes needed when parts being fabricated in the yard don’t fit or work as the design team intended.

Photos from the shop floor instantly communicate the problem to the entire production and engineering team, as well as the naval architects, resulting in corrected drawings being made available in hours rather than days or weeks, Ward said.

Now the procedure is being extended to Vigor’s on-the-job training.

“To our knowledge we are the first to be doing this,” he said.

For training, the smartphone with its app will provide two major benefits. One is that it gives a worker on the shop floor access to learning materials, including videos, while learning on the job. This increases the efficiency of the training, Ward said. Second, and most important, it provides a way to easily document the training.

“It provides direct evidence, a record, of the training, which is critical in getting the final certification,” he said.

In a related development, Vigor has applied for its fourth annual agreement to be a participant in the Alaska Construction Academy, a network of training entities for construction skills operating in several parts of the state, except that the Ketchikan branch focuses on shipyard skills.

For Vigor, the affiliation with the construction academy brings a formal relationship with the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development and training providers like the University of Alaska and AVTEC in Seward.

The construction academies statewide, however, are going through radical changes with the sharp reductions in state budgets. Previously, appropriations of state funds from the Legislature supported the programs, which were operated by the Alaska Construction Foundation, nonprofit education arm of the Associated General Contractors Alaska.

With state funding cut, AGC’s foundation has had to exit the program, which has now been passed to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development for overall administration, although there is less state money available this year.

Several of the academies in rural areas are now to be operated by regional workforce training centers, and in Ketchikan by Vigor, with the needed funding scraped up from competitive grants, national and state philanthropies and employer investments .

Ward said a key factor in the Alaska Construction Academy, in its several locations, has been the ability to certify training under the National Center for Construction Education and Research, or NCCER, a construction industry program which issues certificates for about 70 construction-related skills and maintains a national database of certificates.

Several years ago shipyard skill certifications were added. Recently representatives from Jobs For the Future, a national group, visited Ketchikan to introduce formal apprenticeship in the occupation of welder/fitter.

The loss of state funding for the academies was a real threat to Alaska workforce development, Ward said. Several nonunion Alaska contractors like Peak Oilfield Services and CH2M depend on the NCCER certifications for their craft workers.

“I was very worried that with the demise of funding for the construction academies would result in the NCCER certification for Alaska lapsing. The initiative to maintain it through the Department of Labor and the Maritime Works has become very important,” Ward said.

To give Maritime Works an organizational structure, a relationship was established in 2014 with the Alaska Process Industries Career Consortium, a long-established industry nonprofit that works with the industries that operate industrial plants, like oil and mining companies.

“This was a natural fit for Maritime Works,” Ward said. “APICC has a proven, 20-year track record working with industry and training providers like the University of Alaska.”

APICC will provide management of any funds received to support Maritime Works and will also coordinate outreach efforts, particularly with schools.

Tim Bradner is co-publisher of Alaska Legislative Digest and a contributor to the Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at [email protected].

06/28/2017 - 12:44pm