The State of Higher Education


August 3, 2017 ECHO Magazine

The State of Higher Education

What is the better option for young Alaskans in today’s economy, going to college or learning a trade? For the generations of Americans who entered the workforce after World War II, higher education was only a consideration if you could afford it.

Otherwise, graduating high school meant it was time to go to work. Even without graduating high school a person could likely find a job and maneuver into a meaningful career by doing the same duties for the same employer for many years.

Today that dynamic has changed.

When job seekers enter the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Mat-Su Job Center, they are informed that not having a high school diploma or GED is a significant barrier toward gaining meaningful employment beyond minimum wage jobs. Furthermore, employers offering such jobs demand higher standards for employability even if a person has graduated from a traditional school or passed the GED tests.

It is recommended that job seekers earn a National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC). To earn the NCRC, one must complete WorkKeys Assessments in 1. Applied Math, 2. Workplace Documents, and 3. Graphic Literacy. This certification test is available at the Job Center.

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So, more school, college, or special training are the options.

Economic Reality

Alaska lost 2,100 jobs, and the unemployment rate declined by 0.1 Percentage points in January. Over the 12 months ending in March, Alaska lost 9,000 jobs while the unemployment rate remained at 6.5 percent. This is an economy demanding skilled workers. There is no demand for minimum wage jobs because they assure poverty.

The Alaska workforce is definable.

At the beginning of this year, Alaska had a civilian labor workforce of 360,700 people. Of those, 337.300 were employed, with 23,400 unemployed (6.5% unemployment) according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By June the Alaska labor workforce had increased to 367,000 with 341,900 employed and 25,100 unemployed (6.8% unemployment). Seasonal employment opportunities increased both the number of people in the workforce and the numbers working.

Anchorage had 202,500 of those civilian workers in January, with 189,600 of them actually employed. By June Anchorage had a civilian workforce of 205.3 with 192,300 working.

Those are the civilian jobs available and the numbers of people actually working.

Alaska’s military workforce is around 20,000 and joining the military is an excellent way to gain meaningful training leading to a career in and after the military. Working and being in the military or the reserves can be a viable career option, as well. Joining the military and returning to Alaska during or following service is a career path many Alaskans have taken.

So, if you are a parent hoping your soon-to-graduate son or daughter might train for a career that will be in demand in Alaska, what options are best and how do you prepare for such an occupation.

Training Options

Trade School vs. Apprenticeship

If the chief priority in pursuing higher education is to find a good job, then trade or vocational schools are where you should be looking. Trade Schools focus on preparing students to enter the workforce upon completion of the course. A good Trade School would balance conceptual and practical knowledge.

I have known Alaskans who have attended specialized training schools in other states for jobs they wanted to do in Alaska upon their completion of such training.

Trade School curriculum leaves out a lot of generic theory and emphasizes practical training. Classes tend to be more shop-based than lecture-based. In fact, in many vocational and technical schools, the classroom environment actually resembles the workplace; even equipment and methodologies resemble those that are used in that particular industry.

Trade schools usually consist of smaller batches of students, most of who are focused on a specialized trade. This concentrated stream is instrumental in forging meaningful networks that are likely to last all through your career. It also ensures that you get personalized attention in honing the skills that you already possess.

Reports show employers have been showing an increasing preference for students from technical schools. Since they already possess the skills and technical know-how required for the job, employers feel that they would save considerably on training costs.

Another great reason you may want to consider attending a trade school is the huge cost and time savings involved. Since courses are of shorter duration than universities, you spend less money and time studying. It would also allow you to start earning much faster, almost 2-3 years earlier than if you’d attended a university. Your total savings could amount to 60-70 percent of what you’d spend at university.

The Department of Labor reports that “apprenticeship growth in Alaska continues to increase; there are more than 60 registered apprenticeship programs with 2,257 apprentices and 268 program sponsors. Real opportunities for new apprenticeship programs exist in the areas of health care, tourism, oil and gas, mining, forestry, transportation, and construction. With few exceptions, any business that requires highly skilled employees – a small two-person business to the largest corporations – can benefit from apprenticeship.”

There are benefits from businesses setting up such apprentice training options, too. Employers can expect decreased employee turnover with in-house apprenticeship training, with increased productivity and knowledge transfer from on-the-job learning. Apprentice workers also produce while learning the employer receives a high return on investment while tailoring the workforce to specific expectations.

To gain this benefit, employers must 1. Provide a safe workplace, 2. Provide on-the-job training and supervised work experience, 3. Establish a progressive pay schedule, 4. Document the training progress and 5. Support the related instruction.

That is the overview of opportunities and challenges of training for meaningful careers in today’s economy. Next week we will take a look at some Alaska-specific options, including an apprenticeship program, the AVTEC program and the University of Alaska.




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