Commissioners visit Nome to talk education and employment needs
On Tuesday, May 23, employees from several entities of the Nome community met with Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson and Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Heidi Drygas, along with Dennis Weston and Jana Hoggan, District Supervisor for the Nome Juvenile Probation office. Weston is the Deputy Director of Operations.
Northwest Alaska Career and Technical Center, or NACTEC, Director Doug Walrath organized the roundtable meeting, which was attended by representatives from NACTEC’s partners: the City of Nome, Graphite One Resources, Kawerak, NACTEC, the Nome Job Center, Nome Public Schools, Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, Sitnasuak Native Corporation and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus. Two key contributors, Bering Straits Native Corporation and Norton Sound Health Corporation, were unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts, Walrath said.
Walrath held the meeting to draw NACTEC’s partners into conversation about opportunities for, and barriers to, education and employment in the region, as well as available resources. As Commissioner Johnson put it, he and Drygas came to “see a community and see how workforce development and the K-12 education system should be in sync, find out where it’s not and (learn) what we need to do to make it that way.” He added that Nome is potentially the first of more such joint visits around the state. Walrath said he hopes that the commissioners realized the demand and need for Alaska-grown employees, especially in “priority” fields such as health and education, as well as the opportunities Nome presents.
NACTEC helps to facilitate the transition from high school to employment or higher education by teaching career readiness skills such as driving, interviewing and even swimming, so collaboration between educators and employers is crucial for the program.
Walrath said that NACTEC is uniquely situated because, unlike many programs, it reaches the younger, high school, population. This is important because it helps to keep students engaged in school, he said, adding that NACTEC students have a higher graduation rate than average.
Every roundtable participant began by praising NACTEC for its work and impact around the region. A Nome-Beltz graduate, Kawerak Executive Vice President Mary David spoke about the increased opportunity NACTEC brings, and the shift in attitude that comes with it. “(Before) when you graduated it was like, oh, ok, what are you going to be when you grow up and it’s at that time you decide what you are going to study.” NACTEC helps students to think about their futures earlier in the process. Johnson said, the program prepares (students) to have a vision for their own future, by giving them the ability to learn about different career choices.
In addition to increasing employability, several participants touched on another benefit of NACTEC’s work: the foresight it teaches helps students make better decisions. In a region with high substance abuse and suicide rates, this is an important need to fill. Along with self-respect and responsibility, NACTEC programs such as kayak building foster cultural pride, something Sitnasuak Vice President of Corporate Affairs Ukallaysaaq Tom Okleasik praised. The shift in attitude can also pay off in the future; David cited the presence of a criminal record as an obstacle for both employers and employees.
Although NACTEC provides many services and has spurred progress, there remains more work to be done. Nome Mayor Richard Beneville stated that the region has a lot of “energy, a good attitude and a willing workforce, if we can get them some jobs.” But where there is need, there is often opportunity, which is why understanding the region’s workforce needs and training gaps is the first step. City Manager Tom Moran, commenting as a citizen, spoke about Nome’s housing shortage and the absence of utilities along much of the road system. The demand is there, Moran explained. “We are in desperate need of technical professionals,” he said, including plumbers, mechanics and carpenters.
Several participants were concerned that workers from other parts of the state or country take many of technical jobs in the region. Therefore, the main problem is not a lack of jobs, but lack of workforce preparation. In order to transition to local hire, there need to be more opportunities for technical training. Beneville added that the expansion of Nome’s Port would bring in new types and levels of jobs, but that many of these jobs require specific training. Apprenticeship programs, Beneville believes, would be a good start.
NACTEC does provide some localized training—they have two rooms dedicated to equipment simulators, where program participants can practice driving different pieces of heavy equipment. Walrath pointed out that the simulators were made possible through partnerships, including ones with BSNC and NSEDC. However, Drygas brought up the fact that that, even though Nome is on the coast, there are no marine training programs. She said she would look into the possibility of developing those.
Graphite One General Manager of Operations Dave Hembree explained that the mining company is four years from breaking ground, if all goes as planned, but the operation should bring a few hundred jobs into the region. Hembree said he wants to begin working with junior high and high school students as soon as possible, as being a presence in the schools would get kids thinking about future careers. This would also promote locally grown labor, and even though the jobs with the mine are in the future, Drygas said, “there’s no time to waste” in developing local laborers.
The need goes beyond technical training, however. David mentioned that obtaining a drivers license, something that is necessary for many jobs in construction and mining, is difficult for village residents. NACTEC is the only drivers education program in the region, and Nome has the only Division of Motor Vehicles office for proctoring tests. Walrath added that NACTEC is working on getting test proctors in the villages to expedite the licensing process. However, the program is not large enough to accommodate all the need, especially for adults. This is another issue many participants raised: there is no program like NACTEC for adults.
An overarching problem, however, is Alaska’s current economic crisis. Falling oil prices cause education to suffer, said Drygas, as state budget cuts have “devastated” many programs, including reducing NACTEC’s budget. NACTEC has faced budget cuts in the past two years and when the commissioners heard from partners about the importance of the program, it provided further context and support for it, hopefully keeping it safe from what Walrath called “disproportionate cuts” in state funding.
The decrease in state funding makes the collaboration between local entities and school programs even more critical. Drygas emphasized that in order for the state to fund programs such as NACTEC, legislators want to see that towns have “skin in the game” in the form of local investment. Walrath explained that NACTEC is able to succeed in large part due to partnerships throughout the community, region and state. Part of the reason for the meeting, Walrath said, was to show Drygas and Johnson how instrumental and involved NACTEC’s partners are. For example, after NACTEC lost some state funding last year, partners such as Bering Straits Native Corporation stepped in, allowing the program not only to continue, but to reach an all time high of over 500 participants this year. “When we reached that time when we could keep going in the wrong direction, partners stepped forward and helped provide the funding to offset that,” Walrath said. This year, 40 percent of NACTEC’s operating budget comes from partners.
To learn more about Nome and the surrounding region, Commissioner Johnson toured Nome Public Schools and met with members of the Bering Strait Leadership Team earlier that day. NPS Superintendent Shawn Arnold spoke to Johnson about the 2015 Norton Sound Education Summit, and regional educational priorities including cultural relevancy, early childhood and elementary education, a project called “Growing our own teachers” and post-secondary preparation and transition success.
Drygas visited the Nome Job Center, Northwest Campus, Norton Sound Health Corporation, Katirvik Cultural Center and Norton Sound Seafood Products. Walrath explained in an email to The Nome Nugget that Alaska’s main workforce needs are in healthcare, construction, natural resource development, transportation, education, seafood harvesting and processing, hospitality and tourism and information technology. Drygas was exposed to all of these programs on her Nome visit. “If something from this conversation spurs something or incubates something, I think that’s the best thing that can come from this type of conversation,” Drygas said of the meeting.