Mine training allows students from other industries to find new work

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2010

It's dark. It's cold. It's noisy, dusty, stinky and wet. But the mine students hope their training at a defunct mine site south of the city will help bring them a brighter future.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Former restaurant and night club manager Jason Markert wants to get away from late nights and live a better lifestyle with his wife and three young sons. The family moved to Juneau from Fairbanks nearly a year ago with the intention that Markert, 39, would land a job at one of the local mines.

Prince of Wales Island resident Nick Rowe, 21, also moved to Juneau to work in a mine. An affinity for diesel mechanics and welding in high school led him to believe he'd like underground maintenance. With the world's newest gold mine opening north of Juneau next month, he figured this is the place to get work.

Arthur Scott said a lot of the construction work in Gustavus fell through during the recession, and he was let go from his job at a building supply store last November when the store owners down-sized. Now, at age 29, he's pursuing a new direction.

Scott said he felt amazed to stand for the first time at the gates of a mine portal, feeling the underground cold rush through. Only a month into the training class, he's already accustomed to working in the tunnel and even likes it, he said.

The men are a few of the 11 students in a joint training program supported by the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development and the University of Alaska's Mining and Petroleum Training Service.

The students were screened by Coeur Alaska and Greens Creek Mine, the two companies with working mines near Juneau, before they were chosen for the class. Twenty-six students have gone through the program since last year. Eighty-plus percent of the first class landed jobs at local mines, Apprenticeship Program Coordinator Mary Rodman-Lopez said.

Students in the current class had interviews today with a panel of managers from both mines. Working in head-to-toe protective gear under a steady stream of water on Thursday, many said they felt nervous about the interviews.

Instruction is taking place at the AJ Mine south of Juneau, to give students a realistic classroom. The mine companies had input on the curriculum, and safety is a major emphasis.

"It's cold, there's a lot of water," underground trainer Tom Troxel said. "It's not a normal, everyday job and you really want to instill good common sense."

The class lasts about a month, with training six days a week. These students will graduate next Friday.

The state spent about $200,000 on the two underground classes, which includes housing, transportation and a daily per diem for some of the students. Some funding is federal, through the Workforce Investment Act.

The state started the training program to make sure local workers are hired by companies operating mines in Alaska, Rodman-Lopez said.

Some of the men will substantially increase their earnings if they land jobs.

David Beardslee, 36, had steady work four months a year as a deckhand in Petersburg, but once the recession hit he had a hard time securing steady winter employment. He earned about $30,000 a year but at 36 years old, wants to save up and buy a house.

Miners earn an average salary of $83,000 a year in Alaska, according to the Department of Labor.

Twenty-year Bering Sea fisherman Ha Nguyen, 44, will initially take a pay cut if he lands a mining job after the training class. The former deck boss earned $90,000 on a 175-foot long-liner but said he wanted to learn something new.

"I give myself a test," he said of his underground opportunity.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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