ANCHORAGE - Gary Abernathy has his work cut out for him.
As a career counselor with the state Department of Labor, Abernathy works with the Anchorage School District to help kids interested in construction jobs find employment despite shrinking demand in the field.
In January, the Associated General Contractors of America reported that construction employment dropped 7 percent from November 2008 to November 2009 in Alaska. Spending on new projects is also expected to decrease. In February, University of Anchorage Alaska researchers predicted that total spending within the industry would fall 3 percent this year.
Even knowing all of this, Abernathy does what he can to help students find jobs before, or upon, graduation from high school. He helps run a career development-oriented counseling center behind the King Career Center in Anchorage in a small portable building. Students can prepare resumes with provided computers; practice job interview techniques with Abernathy and the other counselors; and seek guidance in laying out a career path.
"It's a good program. That's why we're still here," he said.
Before the program existed, a shortage of construction workers plagued the industry. This prompted Richard Cattanach, former executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, to go on a crusade to fill the need and find a path for those wayward students more interested in working with their hands than sitting in offices and cubicles.
"Without him, none of this would have happened," Abernathy said.
Eventually, Cattanach succeeded in acquiring the $1 million needed to establish a pilot program, called the Anchorage Construction Academy, that launched construction-oriented classes at King Career Center. The program, now referred to as the Alaska Construction Academies, was a success, and has now expanded to cover 11 communities throughout the state.
Many of the students who come to Abernathy teeter on the brink of quitting school outright, or graduating and getting a low-paying, dead-end job, he said.
For many such students, the prospect of going to college isn't attractive, Abernathy said. Higher education represents to them a massive investment of time and resources, with student loans and potentially low-paying entry-level positions making that path seem impractical.
Presenting these students with a third path is Abernathy's focus. And in many cases, students will establish themselves in the construction industry before attending college later in life, Abernathy said.
"We never, ever, ever, ever discourage anybody from going to college," he said.
Seniors on track to graduate from high school who have been through the career guide program and have construction academy training are invited to an event in April where promising students meet with prospective employers.
Among the 87 students who graduated the program in 2009, about 60 of them showed up for the meet-and-greet event, Abernathy said. Some were hired on the spot. All were eventually employed.
Brandon Bauer, an 18-year-old senior who takes classes both at East High School and the career center, is one of Abernathy's best and brightest.
Standing amid the hustle and bustle of an afternoon carpentry class, Bauer is forced to shout over a cacophony of thudding hammers, buzzing drills and clamoring students. Like the other students, Bauer wears a protective hard hat while on the "job site."
Bauer originally intended to be a police officer, scarcely able to imagine himself as a construction worker. However, after hearing about the construction training program from a radio commercial and trying a few of the introductory classes, Bauer realized that his dream was to become a carpenter.
Bauer spends 10 hours a day in school, showing up for his regular classes at 7:30 a.m. and leaving the career center at 5:30 p.m. Abernathy said Bauer is poised to get a job at the April hiring event, and Bauer said he's shooting for a $15 per hour wage, but he's willing to settle for $12 an hour.
"As long as I get the education I need to further my career, I'll get that job," he said.
Given the current downward trend in construction employment, Abernathy is in talks with the Associated General Contractors of Alaska to figure out which jobs in the field are more in demand than others.
Abernathy is looking into weatherization jobs, where laborers renovate homes to make them more energy efficient.
Ultimately, Abernathy, along with Cattanach and the other principals in the construction training effort, are dedicated to dispelling the myth that construction work is less stimulating and valuable to society than white-collar occupations.
Laura Tichenor, a fellow career guide, echoes this sentiment.
"People who pursue trades build our houses. They affect every single moment of our lives. They're very honorable professions," she said.