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By DAVE REAVES
As our elected leaders kick off the legislative session in Juneau this week they will grapple with budget issues that will define the direction of our state for years to come. As the leader of an organization representing skilled workers, I seek to remind our elected officials of one thing; cutting projects and jobs has never built a society. Investment is the only way to achieve growth and stability and encourage valuable employees to stay in Alaska.
Communities thrive when good jobs with fair pay exist so people can afford to invest, put down roots and stay. It’s this cyclical investment of work, money and energy that changes places for the better over the long haul and we have seen the success it has brought to Alaska. It is also the opportunity Alaska has provided through projects like commercial real estate, medical facilities, utility infrastructure, public buildings, roads, bridges, airports, pipelines and more. It takes skilled labor to build these projects and competitive wages and benefits to keep that labor force here with their families to use the facilities, and spend the income they generate here at home. All of this requires vision, effort and leadership over time.
As lawmakers think about the goals that they want to achieve, I hope they will prioritize providing opportunities for working families here in Alaska. Whether it’s a friend, a coworker or a family member, many of us know someone who has had to leave the state in search of opportunities elsewhere. Many of these people are younger skilled workers near the beginning of their careers who will be earning money, supporting local businesses, and serving the communities they reside in for decades. One way to keep Alaskans here is by prioritizing local hire. Alaska has an able and ready workforce that is smart, talented, and ready to go to work.
As with most things, a ready workforce does not happen by itself. Our education system cannot tolerate giant cuts. Instead, we should encourage a more diverse system that serves the students and helps them become job and career ready. I hope that the Legislature continues to evolve our schools from a one-size-fits-all education system towards a system that provides students with opportunities to succeed in a trade as well as in conventional coursework.
There are a lot of opportunities to put people to work, while addressing important infrastructure needs. Alaska has an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance projects on facilities, totaling nearly $1.8 billion. A capital budget that puts even a small dent in that $1.8 billion maintenance backlog could put hundreds of Alaskans to work and save the State many billions of dollars more in replacement costs.
Another idea is State General Obligation Bonds that could jumpstart projects throughout Alaska and put thousands of Alaskans to work in the process. This alone, even without a substantial State Capitol Budget, would keep Alaska’s highly trained workforce in-state and ready as our economy improves.
More than ever, Alaska needs a viable fiscal plan that can provide certainty for businesses and investors. Private sector growth comes when capital meets labor. We’ve got plenty of talented workers here in Alaska that are ready to go. We need to create the conditions for investment from the private sector as well.
Despite the challenges in front of us, Alaskans have resolve and a collective hard work ethic. We are ready to build Alaska’s future but we must all ensure there are projects ahead. Come earthquakes, rain or shine, winter or summer Alaskans are ready to lace up our boots, put on our gloves and make Alaska the best place to work and raise a family. Let’s get to work!
Dave Reaves is business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents more than 4,000 electrical, communications, construction, government and health care workers across the state of Alaska.