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Intensive maritime course teaches many skills skills: Students enthusiastic about UAS Ketchikan’s QMED program
Assistant Professor of Power Technology and Welding Ken Horn divides a piece of steel with a plasma cutter on Nov. 7 at the Robertson Building of the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan campus. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

Students in the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan campus Maritime Multi-Skilled Worker class were engrossed in engines Nov. 7 at the UAS Maritime Training Center on Stedman street.

The six men and five women enrolled in the 12-week program will receive the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Qualified Member of the Engine Department-Oiler credential when they complete all course requirements.

The students work seven hours per day, five days per week, with some additional hours for certain portions.

Assistant Professor of Maritime Studies Mike LaBarge said, as he walked through the newly renovated training center, that the students who take the course  “are really motivated into learning what it takes to keep a whole floating city going, whether that’s a ferry system, or a catcher-processor, or even just running a tug boat or something.”

LaBarge said that the UAS Ketchikan Maritime Training Center is only one of two in Alaska. There also is the Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward, and Seattle has the next closest one.

LaBarge gestured to a new classroom for QMED students, which features touch-screen smart boards, which he said are tied into the university’s network and servers.

“We’re really happy to be integrating a lot more of the newer technologies into our classrooms,” he said.

The renovations on the Robertson Building were finished this past summer, LaBarge said.

In the engine shop, the QMED-Oiler class was working on diesel engines. The faint smell of diesel, oil and dust mixed with the sounds of students discussing their projects in teams at various engines around the bright, open room. The metallic clanks of wrenches and engine parts rang through the air. An overhead crane whined as a pair of students guided a 100-pound cylinder head into place.

Deb Rose, Rob Ammeter and Gabby Brown were focused on replacing pistons and plastigaging the journals on their engine. A plastigage is a tool to measure clearance between fitted surfaces.

“We’re learning by taking it apart and putting it back together,” Deb Rose said, adding, “It’s been a fun class because it’s hands-on. I get to learn by hands-on and experience what it’ll be like out in the field, instead of just going by textbook, where you read one thing and then you get out and it’s different expectations, being out there.”

Rose said she works in the storage department of Alaska Marine Highway System ferries, and she hopes, with the credentials she’ll earn from finishing the course, she’ll move to a job in the engine department.

“It’s a step in a different direction,” Rose said. “This also guarantees me work elsewhere, should something ever happen with the ferries, I’m guaranteed work all around the world.”

She added that skilled QMED-Oilers are in high demand everywhere, with companies “always looking for people in the engine department, especially for those who have experience.”

When asked if the women in the class were seen as less capable, she had a quick answer.

“No, we’re definitely past that,” Rose said. “The women that are in this class are absolutely awesome. Everybody has a little bit of experience in different departments, prior to coming in.”

Rose said that she has an automotive background, but hadn’t worked with diesel engines before.

Amorita Lopez, who said she has been working as a deckhand on a tender in the summer, was hoping to gain skills and knowledge of engines and refrigeration to expand her abilities as part of the crew.

As she and Dominique Marquez worked to replace cylinder heads in a diesel engine, Lopez listed some of the other topics she and the other students had been tackling in the class, such as hydraulics, naval architecture, electrical systems and welding.

“I didn’t know any of that,” she said.

Lopez said she felt she had done best in the refrigeration portion, but still was working to get a grasp on diesel engines.

Marquez said he took the class with a more general goal in mind.

“I just really wanted to learn new things, so I could have something to put on my resume,” he said, adding, “Just get some skills under my belt.”

He has worked on a seine boat for the past three years, and also had taken the UAS Ketchikan welding class.

Marquez said the least favorite part of the class so far was the shipboard firefighting portion.

“It was kind of scary. More intimidating than I thought it was going to be. Just not being able to see through the smoke — it’s dark and super smoky,” he said.

Chris Angel, also wrenching on the diesel engine, said he is working on a second career, starting with getting as many U.S. Coast Guard certifications as he can earn. He said he is a U.S. Navy veteran, and had enjoyed his time on the sea. He also has worked as a lawyer for the past 25 years.

He has a 30-foot powerboat in Ketchikan, and enjoys fishing, so he said he might look into entering the tourist industry.

Angel said the quality of the QMED-Oiler course has impressed him.

“I’ve been surprised at the breadth of the stuff we are learning, and the depth as well,” he said.

He described the life safety training portion, which includes not only the firefighting, but the lifeboat safety class, which the QMED-Oiler students had to complete over two weekends. Angel said that class requires students to launch and retrieve lifeboat off of a davit system common to large ships on the first weekend. The second weekend, they were to learn to row together, led by a cockswain.

“To me, it’s all life safety, all of this stuff is,” he said of the class. “If you’re going to be out on a boat, where you depend on everything to work correctly, hopefully, you know how to make things run.”

Assistant Professor Ken Horn — a journeyman-level welder and pipefitter — bustled around his welding lab, eager to show off its new technology and safety equipment.

“I tell my students I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and don’t consider it — and never really have considered it — a job. I consider it playing. Because it’s so different and so much fun, for me, I never considered it a job. If you find a job you like to do, how can you call it a job?”

He said he has taught at UAS for the past 11 years, and also teaches metal art classes.

He said his goal is to teach as many welding processes as possible per semester. In the maritime class, he teaches beginning welding, but will teach advanced skills to more experienced students.

“Basically, I’m cramming a semester’s worth of class into the MMSW program,” Horn said. He added, “Let’s put it this way, I’ve been welding for over 40 years, and I still don’t know a lot. There’s so much information to cover, in the classroom alone, it’s just mind boggling. There’s so much to it, and so many avenues that you can go into.”

Horn is passionate about his role at UAS.

“I love it. I love my students. I’ve got students who call me for Thanksgiving and Christmas, still,” he said.

He added that another thing he loves about teaching is watching his students grasp a tough skill.

“When somebody gets it. When somebody does good. One of my famous quotes is ‘You’re having moments of brilliance,’” he said.

His past student, Angie Goffredi, whom Horn called a “star” student, has been working as his welding lab assistant, as well as taking an advanced welding class.

“It’s pretty fun,” Goffredi said.

She said she first started welding on a friend’s farm in Portland, Oregon as a way to help her friend out. She said she first connected with the UAS welding programs through Assistant Professor of Marine Transportation Mariah Warren, with whom she’d been friends for years.

When Goffredi visited Ketchikan a couple of years ago, she said she was smitten by the town.

 “I fell in love with this place,” she said. “Every single day there was something that happened that I was thinking, ‘OK, I could live here!’”

She moved to Ketchikan in January, and jumped into her job at UAS by helping staff to move equipment into the newly renovated Robertson Building. Goffredi said she’s delighted to be teaching welding full time now at the Maritime Center.

“This is my primary job and I’m learning and working every day, which is great. My happy place is being in the shop, so I’m like, ‘Sweet! I get to work in one of my favorite places ever,’” she said.

QMED-Oiler program students Dina Moore and Kristin Mahlen were in the shop, working to remove the fuel injectors and exhaust valve rings in a cylinder head.

It was the first time either of them had tried such a task.

Moore said she was taking the the class because she works as an apprentice mechanic and refrigeration tech on a landing craft in Bristol Bay. She and her partner there are employed by a seafood company as mechanical support for the fishing fleet.

“It’s really easy to fall in love with the ocean; the people that work on the ocean,” Moore said. She grew up in the Midwest, and has worked in Alaska for about three years.

She was attracted to the UAS program because it was a shorter, more condensed program than others she’d looked into.

Mahlen, originally from Fairbanks, said she already has some U.S. Coast Guard credentials, but that earning the QMED-Oiler certification will round out her potential.

“I want to be able to jump on a boat and become a captain,” specifically a tender, she said. She said she’s already been working on fishing boats and also a landing craft for the past nine years, but gaining the hands-on skills she needs as the leader on a boat is essential, she added.

“This is nice, because I can actually learn how everything in the engine room works. That way, if something breaks, I actually know how to fix it,” Mahlen said. “Versus, like, trying to learn how to fix it on the job, when you’ve got machismo in the way, and they want to fix it.”

“I have had some really good captains that would be like, ‘Hey, this thing needs to be replaced. Here’s the tools that you probably need and here’s the part, now go replace it,’” she said.

Mahlen further explained her motivation behind signing up for the UAS QMED program.

“I wanted to understand all the systems as a whole, so I can be a good captain,” she said. Mahlen plans to work in Prince Williams Sound when she finishes the UAS program.

Moore echoed Angel’s thoughts about the program.

“It’s really extensive for the amount of time,” she said. “It’s immediately applicable to whatever engineering or mechanic job you want.”

Moore said another thing she’s learned while in the program is that there is a need for engineers in general, with many experienced engineers retiring.

Assistant Professor of Power Technology Larry O’Loane started the program in fall 2013.

When students receive their course completion certificate, the students are eligible for an internship with the Alaska Marine Highway System, O’Loane said. After completing 120 days of sea time, they receive a U.S. Coast Guard QMED-Oiler credential.

He said graduates have found not only QMED careers after graduation, but also other industrial positions, such as at the Vigor Alaska shipyard, towing companies, Tyler Rental and local mechanical contractors.

“It turns out that all of skills that you need to do that are the basic set of industrial skills, — diesel engines, hydraulics, HVAC, refrigeration, electricity — the basic set of industrial skills,” he said.

He described the program as a broad starting point for people who maybe aren’t exactly sure what they want to specialize in yet, or who want to try some new skills.

“I get a lot of people in here, you know — I hate to say it — but even some of them have never really used tools,” O’Loane said. “How do you know you know you want to be a diesel mechanic if you’ve never used tools?

“Maybe all of sudden, you get into the refrigeration end of things, and that part of it interests you. ‘Ah, maybe I like doing this,’” O’Loane said.

“It gives them a solid set of skills, real-world skills,” he added.

He explained that another goal of the courses is to guide people through the many hoops that people have to jump to gain U.S. Coast Guard credentials, such as the drug testing, physicals, and finding and completing the necessary documents.

He also explained that he has a broader goal in creating programs such as QMED-Oiler.

“I want young people to understand the opportunities that are opening up for them in the trades across the board,” O’Loane said.

He explained that there is a negative message that young people receive that careers in the trades are for “losers,” and that is definitely a false notion.

“These people can get out of here as a QMED, they can make $45,000 to $60,000 a year. Where else can you do that with, quite frankly, just a few months of training?”

He said everything he has seen and heard is that “the phone is just ringing off the hook” for people trained in the trades.

““That’s the stuff that’s going to pay the bills for a long time,” O’Loane said. “And, people can get through these kind of things without going stupid into debt and they can almost be guaranteed a job when they get out.”

Mahlen said, of the UAS program, “The teachers are amazing. They’re good at teaching. Not only do they have the experience and the knowledge, but they’re good at applying that to teaching us and making sure we know how to do it.”

Moore nodded, then added, “So, if I could recommend a program here in Alaska, I’d say this one.”