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Overcoming obstacles to build a rural Alaskan workforce

Jeremy Osborne
The Bethel, Alaska, campus of a regional training center for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, Yuut Elitnaurviat -- The People's Learning Center Inc. Courtesy Jeremy Osborne

Being employed at a rural workforce development organization, I was excited to read Alex DeMarban's article entitled "If the Arctic booms, will Alaska's workforce be ready?"

I appreciated Mr. DeMarban's mention of the barriers to employment facing the rural areas of our state, and was hoping to inform your readers about the efforts that we are making in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.

Yuut Elitnaurviat -- The People's Learning Center Inc. is a 501c(3) non-profit organization located in Bethel, Alaska, whose mission is to put local people into local high-wage jobs. We are one of the Regional Training Centers (RTCs) around Alaska that are working to develop a rural workforce. Our organization has been located in Bethel since 2002, but works to serve all the residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. We have a 40-bed dormitory that we currently use to house program participants from the regional villages during training, and are completing construction on a 68-bed dormitory which will allow us to serve even more people. We are the only RTC with combined solar and wind alternative energy systems powering our campus, and have produced 59.23 MWh of electricity since their installation in the fall of 2012.

I cannot speak for the other RTCs, but Yuut Elitnaurviat (YE) is having some great successes as we work with our partner organizations to train rural workers for local Alaska jobs. Just to hit some recent highlights:

Our Adult Basic Education (ABE) department is a partnership between the local branch campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and our organization. A grant YE was awarded by the U.S. Department of Education allows us to place GED facilitators and examiners in 11 villages throughout the region. The efforts of our village facilitators combined with the efforts of our Bethel ABE Center allowed us to graduate 110 people with their GEDs in May of 2013. That was the largest graduating class ever in rural Alaska. A GED or HS Diploma is the minimum requirement for most jobs in Alaska.

Under a grant from the Alaska Department of Labor's Youth First Program, YE has Career Guides who travel to the 48 villages in our region to deliver career guidance, and are now working with rural youth to obtain their driver's licenses and get them thinking about their futures. If you live off of the road system in Alaska, passing the DMV written test allows you to apply for an off-highway license and legally drive in a rural area. Having an Alaska driver license is a requirement for entrance into a federally registered apprenticeship program, and is often a requirement for employment.

YE's STEM Ready program is a partnership with the Lower Kuskokwim School District and ANSEP to prepare rural students for STEM careers. The program brings village students to Bethel Regional High School to take double blocks of Math and Science that they cannot receive in village schools. This means that they can receive one year of these higher level math and science classes in a single semester.

Our Construction Trades department just finished a Welding and Fabrication course in partnership with the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP), which is the regional Native non-profit organization. We trained nine local students to become certified welders who will work on local AVCP Transportation Boardwalk Projects in our region. AVCP was so pleased with the quality of the students' work, that we conducted a 10-day fabrication class after the original welding training to construct four custom-built steel trailers for use on the project. Yuut Elitnaurviat also manages the Yukon-Delta Apprenticeship Program which is federally registered, and has Carpentry, Electrical, and Plumbing programs.

Yuut Elitnaurviat runs the Yuut Driving Academy -- the only state-certified Driver Training program west of Anchorage. In addition to conducting Road Tests, Defensive Driving Courses, and full training on learning to drive, the Driver Education program has a new Class A commercial vehicle and trailer thanks to a grant from the Alaska Workforce Investment Board. We will be delivering full CDL Training starting at the end of September. Possessing a valid CDL all but guarantees an applicant a job in Bethel, and our organization is continually fielding calls from local employers asking if we know of CDL holders looking for work.

The Healthcare Department is working with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) and the local UAF branch campus to deliver certified nurse's aide training here in Bethel. YE's portion of the funding comes from a US Dept. of Labor Community Based Job Training Grant. The CNAs will go to work at the new long-term care facility being built by YKHC which is expected to open in this October.

Our Public Safety Department works closely with the Alaska Dept. of Public Safety to deliver rural law enforcement training to Village Police Officers, Tribal Police Officers, and Village Public Safety Officers from all over the state. Funds from the previously mentioned US Dept. of Labor Community Based Job Training Grant are used to train local law enforcement officers to go to work in their home communities. We have also hosted the state's Rural Law Enforcement Training in the past.

Even though there are barriers to employment for rural Alaskans, there are programs and people around the state aimed at overcoming those barriers and putting our local people to work. I appreciated Mr. DeMarban's article, and hope that this commentary serves to expand its focus to efforts taking place off the road system.

Jeremy Osborne lives in Bethel, where he serves as director of programs for Yuut Elitnaurviat -- The People's Learning Center Inc.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.