Fund cuts may hurt job-retraining group

Posted: Monday, September 08, 2003

A Ketchikan-based organization that helps struggling commercial fishermen obtain training for work in the maritime industry may be in dire straits due to decreased federal funding.

SEALink Inc. received $500,000 in federal Workforce Investment Act funds this year for its low-income adult dislocated worker program, compared with $1.78 million last year, said Ralph Mirsky, the group's executive director.

Among other things, the program sends commercial fishermen to a Specially Trained Ordinary Seaman course in Maryland, where they can earn certification necessary to obtain jobs on oil tankers, freighters and merchant ships supporting American troops overseas.

"Pretty much all the fishermen that have commercial fished, especially in the salmon industry, that have been affected by the flooding of the market by the farmed fish industry, they all qualify," Mirsky said.

Maritime industry contracts offer flexibility, as the average contract term is four months, Mirsky said.

"We tailored this program so people could fish in the summertime and work in the wintertime, or they could work in this industry full-time," he said.

Course costs run about $10,000 a head, said Ken Baxter, a Juneau troller and longliner who recently completed the course and plans to seek work on a crude oil tanker in Valdez for the fall and winter.

"We can't afford it on our own," he said.

Baxter has been fishing commercially for about 16 years, but has been hit hard by the decline in the state's wild salmon industry. He said his profits have been cut by two-thirds in the last decade or so.

"I love fishing, but you've got to make money, too," he said.

Mirsky said SEALink has helped 40 fishermen, including Baxter, obtain certification. Another 10 are enrolled in the course now, and the organization plans to send 10 more next month. After that, it's anyone's guess, Mirsky said.

"We've got a list of names of people that we've told we don't know what's going to happen. There's probably 25 people," he said. "The feds made deep cuts, and everyone has to accept those cuts. But our program has been so successful for the people who have gotten into it. It's hard to conceive they would give something like this up."

Kitty Farnum, director of business partnerships for the state Department of Labor, said the state's WIA allocation dropped from about $18 million last year to a little over $9 million this year.

"We've had to make some very tough choices. We've worked with SEALink to keep their program afloat at some level," she said.

Farnum said the state plans to offer maritime training through its job centers.

"We've still got training monies that we can use to support the same activity through the job center. We have individual training accounts. We'd love for people to find the front door of the job centers, and our staff will be able to help them," she said.

• Masha Herbst can be reached at masha.herbst@juneauempire.com.



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