Put Alaskans first in rebuilding our construction workforce

Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack and Alaska Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas.

By Alaska Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas and Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack

Our great state is on the edge of a surge of activity. An increase in large-scale North Slope oil and gas development. Significant expansion in the mining sector. The Alaska LNG Project. A host of military infrastructure projects in the Interior. With these on our state’s horizon, the departments of Natural Resources and Labor are focused on the significant economic and workforce development opportunities—and demands—they present. Over the last four years as commissioners in Governor Walker’s administration, we have come to work every day with a shared purpose: to put Alaskans first. To us, that means developing our resources to maximize the benefit of all Alaskans, and prioritizing Alaska hire.

Please pause to consider this critical moment. Construction on many of these projects is expected to start within the next few years and will require thousands of skilled workers to fill good-paying positions. As state leaders in workforce development and natural resource management, we must ask: is our workforce prepared for the jobs these projects present? From pipe fitters and heavy equipment operators, to nurses and cooks, we know that training the number of Alaskans needed for these jobs will require significant planning.

One of our most significant challenges is rebuilding our construction workforce.  With the downturn in our economy and stagnant wages, Alaska has lost a significant portion of these workers. A union pipefitter can earn a 21 percent higher wage package by working in the Lower 48. Knowing that the demand for workers will quickly outstrip our current labor supply, we need an investment of time and dollars to start expanding training and education programs now.

This month, the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. announced a significant step towards insuring that Alaskans are first in line for jobs on the Alaska LNG Project. AGDC and local labor organizations agreed to key terms for an “Alaskans first” hiring agreement.  This agreement means that Alaskans can and will be prioritized first for good-paying constructions jobs building our gasline. Another example is DNR’s inclusion of Alaska hire incentives when it issued a decision last year regarding the expansion of drilling on lands in the Colville River Unit.

Jobs in Alaska should go to Alaskans. We want our sons and daughters equipped with the skills to stand first in line for these jobs, not nonresidents. Alaska Hire policies and partnerships with employers remain a critical priority if we plan to stake our claim in the state’s economic future through an expansion in good jobs and revenue.

Alaska must continue to prioritize career and technical education, registered apprenticeship, postsecondary education, and partnerships with employers that will train workers for 21st century opportunities. That also requires increased state, federal, and private sector investment for career and technical education and workforce development programs.

With our “Alaskans First” commitment in mind, we have planned a meeting at the end of October to include industry leaders, employers, organized labor representatives, and education and training partners at the forefront of major upcoming projects.  Together as Alaskans, we will discuss workforce needs, training capacity and potential challenges regarding these exciting yet demanding development opportunities.

Let’s stake our claim in Alaska’s future. Let’s give Alaskans the competitive advantage they need to stand first in line for jobs that strengthen our economy and support our families. We must rise to the challenge of preparing Alaskans for these once-in-a-generation opportunities, and that starts today.