My Turn: University of Alaska best bet for local hire

Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The operating budget the University of Alaska Board of Regents passed in early November would funnel $13.5 million to some of the highest-demand career training in our state, including health care, engineering, construction management and fisheries.

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In the last decade, UA has jump-started or expanded these programs because of student demand and state need. We've doubled nursing graduates from the University of Alaska Anchorage and now offer the program in a dozen locations via distance delivery. Hospitals across our state have saved millions in recent years simply by being able to hire locally trained nurses, instead of importing them from outside.

This is how a university should operate, in partnership with local employers.

Now we want to double engineering graduates. The marketplace snaps up every engineer we produce from our engineering schools in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Our campus at the University of Alaska Southeast would provide a pre-engineering program, if our budget request is approved. Piggybacking onto already successful programs makes the most of existing resources.

Yet, even doubling engineering graduates only meets half the current demand, not to mention what's needed if a gas pipeline is built.

Our construction management program, another industry request, has been a major success. If the state approves our budget, the new baccalaureate construction management program will produce 20 graduates annually. The certificate and two-year construction technology programs together will double graduation numbers, if not triple them.

Additionally, our requested budget would provide money for a re-energized undergraduate program in fisheries offered in Fairbanks and Juneau, money the Rasmuson Foundation will match with a generous $5 million grant.

Nearly 30,000 year-round jobs in Alaska are filled by non-resident workers who earn roughly $1.9 billion to $2.6 billion annually, according to state figures. Those paychecks aren't being spent in Alaska, and those workers don't call Alaska home. Adequately funding the university is the best way I know to improve those sad statistics.

Of course, any program expansion in higher education increases demand for general education classes, required courses in the humanities, history, English and math. Our budget request accounts for that. We also want to bolster programs that support and guide students, like more academic counseling, so that our students have a better chance at sticking it out and earning a degree or certificate.

Our budget request also invests in research. UA conducts research important to Alaskans, such as arctic biology and habitat, permafrost, global climate change, alternative energy, melting sea ice and coastal erosion. UA research provides 2,400 jobs with an annual payroll of $92 million, both split roughly 50-50 with the private sector. UA research purchases some $100 million annually in goods and services from Alaska businesses.

In the last decade, the university has received state money for program expansion only three times - in fiscal years 2001, 2002 and 2007. While UA's bottom line has increased each year, the dollars available for programs has not, thanks in part to the retirement system crisis plaguing all public employers.

We've gone to industry for support. We've reallocated funds internally. We've doubled our research grants, private giving and tuition. As a result, we've expanded and improved the programs that Alaskans need for jobs. But it's not reasonable to assume we can double these sources again in the next decade. Our business partners are waiting for the state to step up its contribution.

If you're a proud UA alumnus, student, business owner or citizen who values local hire, let your voice be heard. The legislative session starts Jan. 15. For information, go to www.supportUA.org.

• Mark Hamilton is president of the 16-campus University of Alaska system, which has three urban hubs in Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks and 13 community campuses across the state.



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