Turning Shipbuilding Jobs into Careers

Vigor, Maritime Works shore up labor pool with hands-on training

Sierra Callis walks the talk when it comes to skills training. These days she promotes workforce development for Vigor Alaska, the largest shipbuilder in the state, but she got her start by taking welding classes at Kodiak High School.

The idea of learning a trade appealed to her because it offered an affordable, reliable path to work she enjoyed. In 2014, she graduated from the welding program at AVTEC — Alaska’s Institute of Technology in Seward — with an eye to landing a job.

Her effort paid off. She found a position as a welder fitter at Vigor’s Seward facility. A few years later, she moved to Vigor’s operation in Ketchikan to improve her fabrication skills. There, she joined a robust workforce in building two new ferries for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

More than that, the shipyard’s training atmosphere made her think less about holding a job and more about building a career.

“I started thinking about making a difference over the long haul,” she said. “I’ve been able to be here at the starting gates of a training initiative I now help manage.”

That initiative aims to put Alaska residents into shipyard careers.

For Doug Ward, Vigor’s director of shipyard development, seeing people like Callis find a career path speaks volumes about what the initiative would like to accomplish.

“Sierra is an example of how we can use workforce training to move someone who is capable into a role where they can be really successful,” said Ward, who started his career at the shipyard in 1994. “I’m now moving out of the workforce, and she’s coming in behind me. That’s really rewarding to see.”

Turning shipbuilding jobs into careers
Tackling high turnover rates through local hire

The Advancing Alaskan Workers maritime workforce initiative got underway in January 2017 through a partnership between Vigor and Maritime Works, an alliance of maritime industry leaders.

Vigor operates the state-owned Ketchikan shipyard as a public-private partnership. The Oregon-based company has 10 locations and more than 2,500 workers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. It builds and repairs ships and handles complex fabrication.

Maritime Works began as an advisory council of industry leaders tasked with creating the Alaska Maritime Workforce Development Plan in 2014. After completing the plan, those leaders committed to carrying out its strategies through Maritime Works.

Vigor and Maritime Works joined forces to address the shipyard’s high turnover rate and need for a stable resident workforce. “We need Ketchikan residents working in the shipyard to stay competitive,” Ward said.

Vigor won a four-year contract to build two new Alaska ferries in 2014, yet faced a 47 percent turnover rate between 2014 and 2016. Through Advancing Alaskan Workers, the company hopes to hire and train Southeast residents who have a commitment to the community and can grow with the company.

The shipyard employed 21 people in 1994 and now has nearly 200 workers.

“We want to bring on entry-level workers whether out of high school or looking for a career change, and we want to develop their skills,” Ward said. “We have options too for those who want to move into supervision or corporate management.”

In the first half of 2017, the initiative provided 46 classes through a construction academy, with 100 certificates awarded. Courses included welding, hydraulics, diesel engine maintenance, project management classes and business skills.

Plans for the coming year include a registered apprenticeship for a welder fitter position in August, along with a 2018 construction academy.

Building an Alaskan workforce across the maritime industry

More than 50 Vigor employees registered for training the first week after the Advancing Alaskan launch, but the initiative is only one Maritime Works effort to increase the number of Alaskans in maritime jobs.

Right now, almost half of the 70,000 people employed in Alaska’s maritime sector are not Alaska residents. Maritime Works wants to increase the number of qualified Alaskans working in seafood harvesting, processing and marine transportation, as well as shipbuilding and other support roles.

The Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium serves as the staff and fiscal agent for Maritime Works. APICC, an Anchorage-based nonprofit, has been supplying Alaska’s oil and gas sector with qualified process technicians for more than 17 years.

“Bringing Maritime Works into our work is a good fit because what we do here is across industries,” said Cari-Ann Carty, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We historically have a strong relationship with oil and gas, but we also work with mining companies and the fishing industry. We sit on cross-industry committees, and we’re always looking at other areas to be more efficient or join other nonprofits to have greater impact.”

She said Maritime Works has suc-cessfully brought partners together, promoted maritime careers through videos, created structure for the initiative and launched the Advan-cing Alaskan Workers initiative with Vigor.

Challenges remain, she said, including expanding partnerships, help-ing people understand the concept of industry-driven workforce development and finding diverse funding streams.

Strengthening the Alaska workforce requires a mix of industry investments and public funds through partnerships with Alaska Native organizations, the University of Alaska, Alaska Construction Academies, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development and other organizations.

APICC must carefully choose where it puts its efforts, Carty said. “Everything we do must be supported by industry and employers; increase the number of ready, qualified Alaskan workers; address workforce shortages in Alaska; create opportunities for Alaskans; and be sustainable.