Public-private partnership at university spurs Alaska’s maritime workforce training

Government, industry and academic representatives met in Anchorage recently to discuss new ways to advance the state’s maritime sector.

Alaska’s maritime industry—sometimes referred to as “Alaska’s blue economy”—supports over 70,000 jobs and is the state’s largest private employer, according to the Alaska Department of Labor. It includes fishermen, seafood processors, ocean managers and researchers, vessel operators, deckhands, mechanics and many others who work in jobs connected to Alaska’s 44,000 miles of shoreline and its multibillion-dollar annual seafood industry.

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While the blue economy is vibrant, it faces significant challenges. Obstacles include not having enough skilled workers, a lack of interest among young people to enter maritime trades, and a rapidly aging workforce. In commercial fishing, it’s called the “graying of the fleet” but the problem is widespread in other sectors of the maritime economy.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done. Workforce development is not an overnight thing,” said Cari-Ann Carty, executive director of the Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium.

Carty was one of several Alaskans attending an April 16 meeting at the University of Alaska Anchorage, organized by the university’s Fisheries, Seafood and Maritime Initiative (FSMI.) The public-private initiative began in 2010 to raise awareness about the need to create new opportunities for maritime industry training. Four years later, after completing a gap analysis, the group published a maritime workforce development plan that has been breathing life into training development ever since.

Apprentice on the job (Vigor Alaska)

An apprentice at the Vigor Alaska shipyard in Ketchikan practices his skills. (Photo courtesy of Vigor Alaska)

“It gave us a roadmap for where the needs were across the various segments of the maritime industry and how to direct our efforts. There were a lot of needed skills identified for training. Some of these included refrigeration, electrical, welding, vessel repair and maintenance.  The industry partnership helped education and training providers understand what it takes to be a deckhand or a skipper or a fish and wildlife technician,” said Fred Villa, associate vice president of workforce programs for the University of Alaska statewide.

At the UAA meeting, FSMI members discussed some recent accomplishments, many of them outlined in the group’s 2017 annual report.

Between 2014 and 2016, for example, the number of maritime-related training classes in Alaska increased sharply with the number of people completing them growing by 171 percent.

The University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) Fisheries Technology Program awarded 35 certificates, occupational endorsements and associate degrees in 2017.

During the same time, UAA’s Kachemak Bay Campus delivered 23 noncredit and credit maritime classes for both adults and high school students.

An apprenticeship program at Vigor Alaska, in partnership with the UAS Ketchikan campus, is considered a major success story. Vigor is Alaska’s largest shipbuilding company and one of the state’s largest manufacturers.

The apprenticeship program offers on-the-job training for Alaskans in shipbuilding and ship repair, specifically for welder fitters—people who use torches and other equipment to shape and join pieces of metal. It’s considered a highly skilled trade.

Since the apprenticeship began in 2017, 18 people have completed it and 17 are currently in the process, said Vigor’s Sierra Callis, who runs the program.


New apprentices at Vigor Alaska ink paperwork signing onto the welder-fixer apprenticeship program in November 2017. (Photo courtesy of Vigor Alaska)

In addition, the company has been able to cut its employee turnover rate in half, said Doug Ward, Vigor’s head of workforce development in Alaska.

The company plans to expand the program to other skilled occupations in the future.

“We need a qualified workforce to be competitive,” Ward said.

Captain Terry Federer with the Alaska Maritime Training Center in Seward said Alaska is starting to become recognized for its maritime training.

“We have Alaska instructors who are teaching classes in places like Hawaii and Baltimore,” he said.

The Coast Guard–approved training center offers specialized classes in subjects like ice navigation which mariners operating in Arctic and Antarctic regions need. But it also offers courses designed to help anyone find a job or a career in the maritime industry—everything from basic meteorology to shipboard culinary skills.

Kodiak College is innovating by offering many of its trainings and classes on demand.

“We take the portable classroom to you,” said LA Holmes, maritime workforce development coordinator. “You tell us when you want the class and we’ll be there at your office, on your boat or wherever you need us.”

Holmes is starting to offer more classes this way because fishermen’s schedules can be unpredictable and certainly not 9 to 5.

Alaska Sea Grant, a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is also moving in that direction, with some trainings and workshops offered online and with others brought to specific locations upon request, such as a smoked seafood school held recently in Cordova.

In 2017, Alaska Sea Grant delivered courses in seafood processing, seafood safety, boating operations and safety, and the business of fishing in 10 communities to over 260 participants. It also offered web-based classes to nearly 100 participants.

While there’s room to develop and strengthen Alaska’s maritime sector, the state has a lot going for it already. Alaska waters produce over 60 percent of the nation’s seafood harvest with a wholesale value of nearly $6 billion.

Alaska also welcomes over a million visitors on cruise ships, supports fishing charters and provides travel on the Alaska Marine Highway System, which carries an average of 312,000 passengers and 98,000 vehicles per year.

Although the state continues to suffer from low oil prices, tourism remains a bright sector with 1.3 million cruise passengers projected to visit Alaska in 2019.

Villa noted that the University of Alaska is vying to be federally designated as a Domestic Maritime Center of Excellence, a move that could steer new federal funds and assets, including vessels, to Alaska for maritime workforce training. Under the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, certain colleges are to be designated as maritime centers of excellence with the goal of creating a new talent pipeline for careers in the maritime trades.

Villa thinks Alaska has a good shot at receiving the designation within the next six to eight months.

“We’re definitely considered a premier program,” he said.

As far as maritime job growth in Alaska, many who attended the April 16 meeting indicated that progress is being made. Until 2014 when the workforce development plan was published, Alaska didn’t seem to realize it even had a maritime sector, Ward said.

Now it does. And with shipyards like the one in Ketchikan and other investments in the maritime sector, Alaska is starting “to repatriate those millions and millions of dollars that were going out of state” in terms of jobs, knowledge and skills, Ward said.