With a bulked-up labor pool needed and in hopes that a gas pipeline deal will be struck, Gov. Frank Murkowski has signed an administrative order requiring contractors to hire apprentices for the largest state construction projects.
The directive requires apprentices to make up 15 percent of the work force for the state's highway and "heavy construction" projects, or projects costing $2.5 million or more. The order applies to airport, highway, harbor, tunnel, dam, utility and dredging projects for the Department of Transportation.
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The Department of Labor's Mike Shiffer, who is special assistant to the commissioner for apprenticeships, said the state needs 1,000 new workers in the construction industry through 2012 to fill the gap left by an aging work force and an increase in public works projects.
Trades specified in the order include operating engineers, construction equipment operators, mobile heavy equipment mechanics and lubrication servicer-materials disposal technicians.
"The industry and organized labor came to us and said, 'We need help in these areas,"' Shiffer said, but said the program would work for other occupations as well.
Labor Commissioner Greg O'Claray said the order also is a way to train more construction workers in anticipation that the state will build a gas pipeline from the North Slope.
O'Claray said that the apprentice order also will help prepare for a big increase in capital construction projects spurred by high oil prices.
"All of those projects can be phased in so you don't spike your work force," O'Claray said. "The biggest spike is when we begin building the pipeline."
The state is in talks with the three major oil companies - Exxon Mobil Corp., BP PLC and ConocoPhillips - and with TransCanada to build the pipeline from the North Slope, through Canada and down to the Midwest. A third gas line applicant is the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, which proposes a pipeline to Valdez, where the gas would be liquefied and shipped to West Coast markets.
O'Claray said the pipeline project would need hundreds of heavy equipment operators and other construction workers that Alaska could not now provide.