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By NICK BOWMAN
Daily News Staff Writer
The Southern Southeast Alaska Technical Education Center reached out to Southeast industry to solve a different sort of unemployment problem — finding workers for jobs rather than jobs for workers.
Camille Booth, interim education director with the center, spoke at the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday about what she and the center have heard from Southeast industry.
She said companies in the Southeast couldn’t find qualified and trained workers or any workers at all.
"We heard this tale again and again," she said. "We finally said, ‘Well, what do you need?’"
According to Booth, Southeast employers wanted the same thing — entry-level workers with experience in safety and machinery.
And from the Ketchikan Indian Community came the Safe and Competent Worker program, an eight-week training course that provides experience and classroom learning as well as certifications in machinery operation and safety.
The program offers a range of certifications from OSHA 30 to forklift and manlift to lead-based paint removal, and is open to Ketchikan residents aged 18 to 26.
The tuition-based program, which costs participants $3,000 for the course or individuals $100 per day of coursework, also teaches participants about on-the-job behavior and requires them to pass a drug screen and background check during the term.
The goal is to produce job-ready workers with the right behavior, according to Booth.
"One of the main themes of Safe and Competent Workers is our workforce behavior shop," Booth said. "The main thing we hear from industry is, ‘These kids come in — they have rotten attendance, rotten on the job behavior. They stand around and smoke, and even if I hire them, I can’t keep them.’"
The program puts participants through a week of interviews to discover barriers to progress, and part of the reason the full program is restricted by age, according to Booth, is because older workers are too often set behind problematic barriers.
"We really focus on those strengths and barriers first to find out what (they’re) willing to change," she said.
Charles Edwardson, workforce development director at the center, said behavioral health development is essential to the program.
"Behavioral health is the problem," he said, adding that the State of Alaska is spending billions on workforce development through the University of Alaska system along with other programs to lower the unemployment rate.
"It’s behavioral health," he said. "It’s a broad spectrum of child support issues, not having a driver’s license, drug and alcohol problems — so you can train these guys, but if they can’t pass a background check, they’re not going to work.
"So you’ve spent all that money for nothing."
He said KIC has been accounting for these issues with their worker training.
"Our philosophy was to fix them first and then train them," he said. "It sounds kind of cold, but that’s the idea. You’ve got to get them healthy in the mind and body and then get them out into the workforce."
Residents of any age can take pay for individual days of course work to earn specific certifications, according to Booth.
Booth said it was "absolutely essential" for the program to offer nationally accepted certifications in safety and operations.
"If we provide a certificate to a kid, we want them to be able to take it to Florida," she said. "You can travel somewhere else and still be a skilled worker."
To that end, certificates earned by the program are provided through the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which uses a database employers can search and verify that applicants and employees are certified.
Booth described the eight-week program as a boot camp for trainees that ends every day with a workforce workshop.
"(It’s) feedback on how they did during the day," she said. "This is extremely direct, super-duper, in-your-face training. We’re not pussyfooting around."
Edwardson said training programs like the Safe and Competent Worker program are necessary to counter the workforce trends.
"The problem with workforce development is that the workforce is resistant to being developed," Edwardson said. "The youth of today need to be hammered, and that’s what we’ve developed here — a little more aggressive approach.
"We will see results in Ketchikan. I guarantee it."