State Labor Dept. teamed with Apple for coding skills workshops

  • Apple CEO Time Cook watches as third grade students work on a Star Wars coding game at an Apple Store in New York in 2015. Apple co-hosted three workshops with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development in March to introduce anybody who was interested to the basics of coding. (Photo/Mark Lennihan/AP)

The state government is trying to give Alaskans a leg up into tech industry work — specifically, coding.

Coding describes a broad array of jobs, ranging from back-end web development to network engineering. Though coders are generally thought of in the context of technology companies like Apple or Microsoft, many industries now have jobs for people with coding skill sets.

In March, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development hosted a set of workshops in Wasilla, Juneau and Anchorage titled “Every Alaskan Can Code” to introduce anyone to the basics.

One of the things they learned was how accessible coding can be, said Department of Labor Deputy Commissioner Cathy Muñoz.

“When you think of coding you think of a skill that’s complicated,” she said. “What we saw is that coding is accessible and that … coding affects all aspects of the economy. That was one of the main takeaways of this workshop—anybody can code.”

The three workshops were co-hosted by Apple, which provide the personnel, Muñoz said. The Department of Labor approached multiple technology companies in search of a partnership to open up coding opportunities, and Apple showed “the most enthusiasm,” she said.

Each workshop attracted around 40 to 50 people, with the largest turnout in Wasilla. The department intentionally scheduled them during spring break in Alaska’s school districts in an attempt to attract young people, but participants of all ages came, Muñoz said.

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy touted the workshops during his recent budget roadshow as an opportunity for economic growth.

“Computer coding will help to diversify our economy and provide good-paying jobs for Alaskans anywhere there is an Internet connection,” Dunleavy said in a recorded video.

While Alaska is not home to any major tech firms, proponents hope to attract employees who work remotely to live in the state while providing services elsewhere. That’s already the case in some of Alaska’s cities, like Juneau, where a number of remote workers share an office space downtown while working on their own various projects.

Called Juneau Coworking, the space is an iteration of a well-established trend in the Lower 48 for online and remote workers who want to share a space with other professionals instead of working from home.

Conroy Whitney, one of the founders of Juneau Coworking, said that was his own interest when he started the organization in Juneau. A remote technology worker himself, he relocated to the state in 2016 and spent a winter working alone at home near Talkeetna before trying out a coworking office space in Anchorage called The Boardroom.

“I got plugged into the startup and entrepreneurship community,” he said in an email. “And most importantly, I was insanely productive! My freelancing career took off! That black and white contrast between that first winter working from home, and the subsequent summer working out of a coworking space, was what convinced me that coworking is really a game-changer.”

After relocating to Juneau because of its geography, outdoor recreation opportunities and high-speed fiber internet connection, he worked on starting a similar coworking space in Juneau. April 5 marked Juneau Coworking’s six-month anniversary, with about 100 people coming to use the space from intermittently to regularly during that time. Though many of them are remote tech workers like Whitney, others are life or health coaches, he said.

He noted that remote tech workers import paychecks to the state from elsewhere, as opposed to local jobs that circulate paychecks.

“If I work with people in LA, Austin, and NYC, I’m exporting my time and experience, and taking money from those huge hubs and spending it at my local grocery store, restaurants, and theatre,” he said. “The fact that Alaska is naturally so spread out only works to our advantage: the same skills we use to communicate intrastate can be used to communicate globally.”

Opportunity in remote areas is a huge issue for Alaska. Many Alaskans are spread out over a vast geographic region off the road system, with few local economic opportunities besides resource extraction, commercial fishing or government jobs. Muñoz said providing opportunity in rural Alaska is a major motivation for the Department of Labor’s coding trainings.

Tech companies often end up turning to hiring foreign workers for positions that require coding experience because of the lack of the same skill sets and levels in the U.S. The Department of Labor wants to seize that opportunity, she said.

“We see this as an opportunity to engage the public in a range of flexible work opportunities that can be done anywhere there is a high-speed internet,” she said. “There’s just a huge opportunity in this country.”

High-speed internet is an issue for many areas of Alaska, as are energy costs. The places where high-speed internet is available and the cost of energy is lower tend to be the urbanized areas, such as Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula.

However, GCI has been building out internet infrastructure across Western Alaska as part of its TERRA network since 2011, and a new fiber optic cable system laid along the coast of the North Slope promises high-speed internet to communities from Nome to Prudhoe Bay.

Muñoz added that the Department of Labor is feeling out interest among technology companies to host two-week coding academies in the future, and advised Alaskans to watch out for announcements of further opportunities in more communities.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

04/10/2019 - 9:48am