Creating jobs through apprenticeships at Iḷisaġvik College
Contrary to popular belief, the oil field sector is not the only source of employment on the North Slope. In fact, the majority of North Slope residents are employed in the areas of local governance, education, health services, non-oil field construction, hospitality and tourism, transportation, and utility distribution. Job creation on the North Slope requires a multi-faceted approach.
Iḷisaġvik College is continually searching for ways to add programs that will enhance future employment opportunities for North Slope residents. The college works toward this goal in a variety of ways. First, the college offers courses that enhance employee skills that lead to employment opportunities within the existing local North Slope job market. The college does this by enhancing the skills of those already employed so that they have the needed credentials and expertise for promotion into jobs currently filled by outside hires. Another way the college is helping to enhance employment opportunities is by supporting local employers in creating new job openings.
This year, for instance, Iḷisaġvik College has added a fully accredited four-year business degree to its degree offerings. However, always acknowledging that a two or four-year academic program does not fill the needs of all residents, as part of the college's mission it has kept vocational education and skilled trades a cornerstone of its program offerings.
Local stakeholders stressed the need for skilled trade employees and local residents emphasized a flexible program that allowed them to fulfill family, community, and subsistence commitments. Iḷisaġvik College reviewed its vocational education program and, with stakeholder input, made the commitment to sponsor apprenticeships.
These apprenticeships, which cover a wide variety of careers and skills from health care to weatherization, will provide North Slope residents with a stepladder to higher levels of employment and wages. Apprenticeships are a path to better employment through greater skills and accreditations. They provide employers with a much more highly skilled local workforce thus enabling them to promote from within for positions that are now filled by outside hires. Equally important for the future of the North Slope is that studies show that most residents who receive advanced accreditations at Iḷisaġvik choose to stay in the region.
Apprenticeships, in general, are a partnership between an employer and a training facility. Because this is an employer-generated program, students are full time employees from day one of their apprenticeship. The employer will provide the apprentice with the on the job experience needed to fulfill apprenticeship requirements while the college will provide the academic instruction, called Related Technical Instruction. On the North Slope, Iḷisaġvik College has been providing vocational education instruction since inception in 1991.
In order to have a registered apprenticeship, an organization or employer must submit a sponsorship application to the Department of Labor that details the organization's workforce demographics, the proposed wage scale, the job expectations, and the proposed technical material. A sponsorship can be a single employer or a consortium of employers all agreeing to the same sponsorship terms. According to Arth Brown III, Dean of Vocational Education and Workforce Development, "The Department of Labor came to Utqiaġvik to talk with interested partners on establishing apprenticeships. The discussions were well received and potential areas of interest ranged from the traditional skilled trades, to healthcare, to pre-apprenticeships in our high schools."
In the early application stage, many organizations expressed interest, but two organizations in particular were eager to get apprenticeships started; the North Slope Borough Weatherization Program and Ukpeaġvik Inupiat Corporation.
The NSB Weatherization Program, headed by Griffin Hagle, is charged with reducing energy costs for low-income households in the borough through home modifications that increase energy efficiency and improve health and safety. UIC is the Alaska Native village corporation for Utqiaġvik, and provides social and economic resources to over 2,900 Iñupiat shareholders and their descendants. Both companies have been instrumental in creating Iḷisaġvik College's apprentice sponsorships.
Brown said, "Griffin Hagle, with NSB Weatherization, helped spearhead the navigation of creating apprentice positions at the borough. As Griffin worked with NSB Human Resources to create hiring tiers, Griffin and the college worked together to create the Building Energy Retrofit Technician (BERT) sponsorship. UIC has helped revitalize the skilled trades of electrical, carpentry, and plumbing. These two (organizations) were the catalyst to our sponsorships."
In discussing the benefits of programs like the apprenticeship program being coordinated through the college, Griffin Hagle added, "Students can secure a job with just a weatherization certificate. However, with each subsequent gain in education (laddered certificates and/or degrees), the North Slope Borough offers tiered increases. Students with more education (such as an associate degree) are eligible for more upper-level positions, and are eligible for increased wages. Overall, if a student continues their educational journey, they are eligible for more advancement opportunities and movement within departments at the North Slope Borough and other local employers."
Another benefit of the apprenticeship program is that it allows non-traditional students to earn college credits while working full time and supporting their families and communities. It will give these employees a path forward toward higher salaries and positions. And it offers employers another way to support and encourage employees to enhance their skills with an eye toward filling more advanced positions in the field, thus eliminating the need to bring in outside hires. This opens up many new entry-level positions that can be filled locally thus adding to the local employment base.
A major component of Iḷisaġvik College's effort to create jobs for the region is creating flexible, modular credits that support students in their communities and uphold the subsistence way of life. Through the use of the National Center for Construction Education and Research curriculum, the college's courses use nationally recognized industry credentials in a standard modular format. Courses are now offered in one-week formats, allowing for flexibility for employer driven scheduling and subsistence seasonal activities.
"When whaling season starts, everything else in the community becomes a secondary priority," Brown said. "We needed to find a way to support job creation, while still supporting our region's (subsistence) way of life."
For many North Slope residents, leaving home for any level of post secondary education was always a problematic issue. Family commitments, subsistence, unfamiliarity, being a first-generation college attendee, can all weigh heavily on our students. But at Iḷisaġvik, most residents feel as though they are still within the embrace of a supportive community and family. This increases their chances at success in their chosen field. It is what Iḷisaġvik does best.