Education, employment agencies see shrinking funds, usage

Some Kenai Peninsula training and education programs are threatened both by an increasing reluctance of individuals to invest in training and decreased demand for personnel on the part of employers. The decline was among the trends brought up by speakers at a workforce outlook panel at the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District’s Industry Outlook Forum on Wednesday. The panelists represented Kenai Peninsula College, the Kenai Peninsula Construction Academy, Seward’s Alaska Vocational Technical Education Center (AVTEC), the Alaska Department of Labor and the Kenai Peninsula School District.

Kenai Peninsula College director Gary Turner attributed the declining enrollment at KPC — a trend he said has continued since the 2014-2015 school year — in part to what he called “the fear factor.”

“There’s so many people out there right now … that are afraid of whether they’re going to have a job in a month, or six months from now,” Turner said. “They’re holding on to the money they might have used to attend college and take classes.”

In the fall 2016 semester, Turner said KPC enrollment rose slightly to match the enrollment of the preceding fall. But although the number of students has bumped up, the number of credits those students enroll for is declining.

“What this tells me is that we’re attracting students, but they have less money so instead of taking three or four courses they’re taking one or two,” Turner said. “We’re doing well in the recruitment aspect, but they don’t have the income to pursue their college careers.”

Bob Hammer is the program coordinator of the Kenai Peninsula Construction Academy, which offers entry-level carpentry, plumbing, welding, and electrical training. He had a simple explanation for the declining enrollment his organization has also seen.

“It’s the price of oil,” Hammer said. “No jobs. You can train as many people as you can, but if there are no jobs they actually don’t show up to do the training either. That’s what we’re finding.”

To cope with decreased hiring, AVTEC Director Cathy LeCompte said in a later interview that her organization will be looking into how to connect students to job markets that may be distributed among several smaller employers, rather than concentrated within a few large employers who may not be in a hiring mood.

“Collectively, I think there’s good work to be done,” LeCompte said. “There’s jobs there, but they’re maybe not en masse. In our maritime program we have an apprenticeship program, for example, and one of the apprenticeship paths is cook’s training. Everybody needs a good cook on their boat, but it’s not a lot. Especially on these boats — we’ll be lucky to find a boat that has a place for an apprentice, because they’re small. But if you get eight businesses with two apprentices, that’s sixteen people. That collaboration between small business and education to fill a specific niche, I think, is going to be the key … There’s not huge jobs, like a thousand people in the oil industry. It might be one or two people on a tug or barge.”

LeCompte, who became AVTEC’s director in November 2016 after serving as Associate Dean for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Community and Technical College, said she was “in the analysis phase” of figuring out why some industry needs don’t seem to be drawing a commensurate number of work-seeking students. For example, she said, “All I hear about is marine refrigeration needs.”

“The industry is screaming about that,” she said. “So that’s my big question — why aren’t people beating down the doors to get into marine refrigeration?”

Kenai’s Peninsula Job Center, an Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development agency, deals not only with workers who are trying to enter employment, but also those falling out of it. Rachel O’Brien, the Alaska Department of Labor’s Southwest regional manager, said the Job Center’s rapid response program tries to catch laid-off workers before they become laid-off workers.

“One of the true challenges we continue to face with the economic downturn is getting in the door with the employer and the employees before a lay off or reduction happens …” O’Brien said. “Emotionally, when you lose your job it’s like losing a family member. You’ve lost your identity. Being able to connect with that individual while they’re still employed, and being able to plan while they’re still employed, it’s huge … We continue to reach out to employers to say ‘we’re here.’ We’re here for your recruitment needs, and we’re here in the tough times too, so we can figure out how to be as least impacting — there’s always going to be impact — to all.”

In spite of the poor job market, Turner said prospective students should overcome “the fear factor” to make longer-term career decisions.

“It’s going to take you two to four years to get that degree,” Turner said. “… Hopefully we’ll be out of this when you come out, and you can get that job. So start now. Don’t say ‘everything’s terrible, and I’m not going to go to KPC because there’s no jobs out there.’ You’ve got to plan ahead two to four to five years. You’ll have that degree at the end of the day.”

Funding drop

 

The same industry decline that’s shrinking job demand is also damaging oil-dependent state revenue, a source of funding for four of the five institutions represented on the panel.

The Alaska Department of Labor allocation that funds the Construction Academies (the Kenai Peninsula’s is one of six around the state) has shrunk from $3.4 million in fiscal 2015 to $1.2 million in the fiscal 2018 budget released by Alaska Governor Bill Walker on Dec. 15, 2016. LeCompte said AVTEC suffered a 20 percent budget cut last year, forcing her predecessor Ben Eveland to end its Anchorage-based healthcare training program.

For the Peninsula Job Center, the state general funding received by its parent organization, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, was also reduced about 20 percent last year, and O’Brien said more cuts were anticipated this year. The Job Center, however, is 100 percent federally funded, she said.

“Although we haven’t experienced the deeper cuts we’ve seen with departments around the state, be assured that we are tightening our belts in a varieties of ways, whether that is looking at co-location with partners or reducing space,” O’Brien said. “In our region we’ve turned job centers over to Native organization partners where it makes sense to.”

A job center in Seward was turned over to AVTEC, O’Brien said.

For the University of Alaska system, which includes KPC, Turner said this year has yet to bring any new financial damage.

“The governor submitted a status-quo budget for the university — first time in three years there hasn’t been a reduction,” Turner said. “But what kind of sausage is the legislature going to make out of it by May? Or June if it’s like last year?”

The current state budget received the governor’s signature on June 28, 2016 after becoming the subject of two special sessions following the regular session’s end on May 18, 2016. Alaska’s fiscal years start on July 1.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Sean Dusek echoed Turner’s concern about the uncertainty of state funding and the twisted timeline it creates — like the university, the district gives out personnel contracts in March, but depending on the legislature’s actions may not know how much money it will have for the coming year until June, Dusek said.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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