State Department of Labor Commissioner Dianne Blumer was in Ketchikan this week for the Alaska Workforce Investment Board meeting. She took some time Wednesday to talk to the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce about workforce development, and services that her department offers.
“I like to think that we’re the department of opportunity,” she said.
Blumer clearly loves putting people to work, and that’s a good trait for a commissioner of labor. The former Southeast Alaska resident has been on the job since last spring, when Gov. Sean Parnell hired her to replace the retiring Click Bishop.
She’s worked for the state for more than 20 years in various positions before her current job. Blumer said even she, a career state employee, was surprised by how many services are offered by her department.
“There’s a lot of opportunity available for youth, for dislocated workers – people who have lost their job and need to be retrained – through vocational education, people who are injured or can’t do their job anymore, and just people who want to upgrade their career,” she said. “I’m not certain that people really know what is available.”
Blumer has focused on outreach to let people know about those opportunities. Part of that is working with industry leaders to find out what job skills are needed. Through that, the department can focus its training and apprenticeship programs. One example is mining job training, which the department offers in partnership with the University of Alaska Southeast and mining companies.
“The (Department of Labor) forecast indicated that the state will add 500 jobs in mining and supporting activities by 2020, so we really need to be focused on that,” she said. “And you in Ketchikan know that because of all the activity going on on Prince of Wales Island. So it’s going to be key to all of us to try to develop the workforce so we can hire locally.”
The mining program has an approximately 98 percent job placement success rate. Blumer said she hopes to purchase a portable underground mine simulator, to take the training program on the road. That would allow people to participate even if they can’t afford to travel to Juneau.
Partnerships are key to many programs Blumer is working on. One new program could tap into a new source of needed labor: prisoners.
Blumer explained that the federal government likely will discontinue a visa program that allows foreign nationals to come here to work. Many of those people worked in the fish processing industry.
“We started getting letters in the governor’s office that were saying, we won’t be able to process, we won’t have enough people, we won’t have the manpower,” she said. “We were talking about a couple thousand jobs. And they’re not high-paying jobs, but I thought: ‘I know where there are 6,000 people who could go to work today.’”
A pilot project for the state’s first work-release program likely will take place this summer on the Kenai Peninsula. Blumer said it will put about 20 minimum-offenders to work in the first year.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce the recidivism rate by allowing them the opportunity to pay their bills while they’re still incarcerated, get a little bit of gate money so when they get out, they don’t have $1.50 and they’re dumped in the Carrs parking lot and then they become a repeat offender,” she said.
Through the various training and apprenticeship programs, Blumer estimated that the Department of Labor invested about $26 million a year in workforce development for Alaska.
She encouraged business and industry leaders, and people looking for jobs to check out everything the department offers. There are 21 Job Service Centers in the state, from Barrow to Ketchikan.
More information about the Department of Labor and Workforce Development programs and services is available at http://www.labor.state.ak.us/