Schools offer high-tech skill - for a price

Posted: Monday, July 28, 2003

ANCHORAGE - The job market in Alaska is hungry for workers with high-tech skills, and business is brisk at vocational training centers and other educational institutions.

"We are all looking at shortages projected, serious shortages in the work force," said Sally Suddock, executive director of the Alaska High-Tech Business Council.

Suddock helps organize a group called the Industry Skills Coalition, which brings together members from the manufacturing, tourism, construction, petroleum and health-care sectors of the economy.

She said there is stiff competition for well-trained entry-level employees in virtually all industries in Alaska, but the ISC group members have a common goal.

"The bottom line is, we don't care where the workers end up, we just want them to stay in Alaska," she said. "A lot has happened since the 'dot-bomb' thing and there are a lot of techs on the street everywhere. But 70 percent of the technology work force is in non-technology companies because it is so pervasive."

That's where a good education comes in handy.

Ron Perry, owner of the Alaska Computer Training Center in Anchorage, said the biggest demand he sees is for "MOUSE instruction." The acronym stands for Microsoft Office User Specialist.

"Most people want to be proficient in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access and just Windows, of course, so that they can obtain these jobs," he said. "You're not going to get a higher-level job unless you have these entry-level skills. If you don't know them, you're going to relegate yourself to flipping burgers for the rest of your natural life."

Most people take a series of three courses - basic skills, intermediate and advanced. Perry said he charges $169 per course for each software application.

"Some places charge more, some less," he said.

The Career Academy in Anchorage offers extensive training in office skills. Owner Jennifer Deitz said it is a nationally certified training institute, and it graduates six classes a year.

"We refer to them as people who are taking over the world," she said. "They are learning QuickBooks and other accounting software programs, so they can go out there and work for those big companies."

Alaska may be an isolated part of the world, Deitz said, but there is plenty of work for the well trained.

"In the IT (information technology) industry, jobs are not as hot as they have been in the past. But in Alaska, the job market is better here," she said.

The academy's six-month business office specialist day program costs $8,995 plus $100 for enrollment and graduation fees.

Beyond office skills, there also is a growing demand for upper-level computer expertise.

Steve Cysewski is coordinator of the Information Technology Specialist Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The school has a two-year associate of applied science degree, and it moves fast to keep up with emerging technologies, he said.

"Well, you have to like it," he said. "Our curriculum is designed to be flexible enough so that we can adapt very quickly to new trends, new interests and demands.

"We have people coming in doing a lot of re-training, especially people with disabilities ... or who have worn themselves out on their other jobs," he said.

Cysewski said another option for upper-level training is the state's Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward.

"They have an exceptional program," he said. "It's offered in a residential, more concentrated way, and is highly recommended."

Privately owned Charter College in Anchorage offers two bachelor's degrees in information technology, along with an accelerated program to grant associate degrees in 15 months, and another program that grants certificates in five months.

IT program director J.T. Harris said the degrees provide students with top-level engineering and networking knowledge, but even the most sophisticated programmers will need the basics.

"The high-tech skills are extremely important," he said. "But a lot of the employers are also focusing on diversity - the ability to perform certain functions and yet still play well in the sandbox together."

Harris calls them "soft skills."

"Definitely the ability to effectively communicate in writing, and orally as well," he said. "You'll see Microsoft Office Specialist Certification being requested in just about any requirement."

The college enrolls about 1,100 students a year, and schedules five academic sessions of 10 weeks each annually.

Sally Suddock at the AHTBC said Alaska needs to ensure a steady supply of high-tech workers as the baby-boomer generation retires by working with the youngest students.

"We have to re-tool the entire K-12 system. There is nowhere near enough career education going on out there," she said. "It's happening, one school at a time."

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