Today on Labor Day we honor the dignity of human labor. In Alaska, that means honoring the approximately 397,000 Alaskans in our workforce - the lifeblood of the land of opportunity that is Alaska.
Our great state has been built by the blood and sweat of all the individuals who envisioned a grand future for themselves and their children.
The strength of our economy comes from hardworking men and women who give their best every day, including the thousands of high school, technical school and university graduates who enter the workforce every year.
Although many businesses cite the difficulty of finding qualified employees as their single biggest challenge, many throughout Alaska can't find jobs. This labor disconnection is a tipping point in our economy. It affects not only day-to-day business, but also limits opportunity for long-term growth.
The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development is committed to helping good workers and good employers find each other. We will also respond by working harder to provide training, education and apprenticeships. Our success will depend on strong partnerships with industry and education, as our needs and resources complement each other.
Gov. Sarah Palin has signed four bills into law, which provide additional support for working Alaskans and strengthen our businesses and communities - increasing unemployment benefits, extending the state training program, extending education tax credits to vocational programs and increasing funding for vocational education.
Unemployment insurance is a safety net that protects Alaska families when jobs are scarce. By helping keep workers in Alaska, it ensures that businesses have experienced workers available. The maximum unemployment insurance weekly benefit will increase from $248 to $370 beginning Jan. 1, placing Alaska at the midpoint among states, rather than the fourth lowest in the nation. The benefit hadn't been raised since 1997. The legislation also protects the privacy of Alaskans applying for unemployment benefits by ensuring that claim information remains confidential.
The State Training and Employment Program has been extended for two years. Operated by the department of labor, the program has trained more than 24,000 Alaska workers over the last 19 years. About 94 percent of STEP trainees are employed within 12 months. STEP participants earned more than $71 million in Alaska wages in the year following their training. And this program is providing a long-term benefit - more than 90 percent of STEP participants remain in Alaska.
Businesses now have an incentive to support vocational education. Effective Jan. 1, the education tax credits to cover contributions up to $150,000 will be extended to include secondary school vocational programs and state-operated vocational and technical schools in Alaska. The credit had been only for contributions to two- and four-year colleges and universities. The credit can now be used against these taxes: insurance, corporate income, oil and producer, oil and gas property, mining license, fisheries business or fishery resource landing.
The allocation to the Technical Vocational Education Account has been increased and the funds can be distributed to a wider range of training facilities.
But we have more work ahead of us.
At more than 6 percent, our unemployment rate is higher than it should be - and this hardship is concentrated in certain regions, industries and populations, such as people with disabilities.
The Department of Labor will continue to improve our services to prepare unemployed and underemployed workers. We are also working harder to close the gap, to train Alaskans for the high-paying jobs that currently go to non-residents.
Alaska has grown by developing its natural resources - the decline in our oil production makes it imperative for our state to pursue new and expanded industrial opportunities. The Alaska Gasline Inducement Act license authorized by the Legislature creates a platform for long-term growth and prosperity. Now is the time to plant and carefully tend, if we are to harvest a future of good jobs for Alaska's sons and daughters.
Alaskans should have the right to get good jobs - not by heading south, but in our hometowns in our home state. We should not have to abandon family and heritage, and the land we love, to earn a future.
Click Bishop, a life-long Alaskan, serves as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.