One of the expected benefits from Ketchikan Vigor Alaska’s successful bid to build two new ferries for the state is more jobs. Shipyard officials told the Chamber of Commerce Wednesday that the work will add 70 to 100 new employees. The big question, though, is whether Ketchikan has the right people to fill those positions.
“Create more jobs” is a mantra in Ketchikan, but the problem with more jobs at the shipyard is, workers there need special skills.
Yard Superintendent Troy Tacker has worked at Ketchikan’s shipyard for 12 years, and said it’s only recently that the operation reached the point where it could build a ferry or two.
“Twelve years ago, if you had asked me if we could do this, when it was still Alaska Ship and Drydock, I’d have said no.” he said. “Because we didn’t have the labor. We didn’t have skilled labor.”
Tacker said that started to change after shipyard officials started going into the local schools, talking to students about potential career opportunities in the marine industry.
“If we’re going to operate a shipyard, and we’re going to build Alaskan ships by Alaskans,
we gotta go find them,” he said. “We gotta make them excited; we gotta make them want to come here.”
To accomplish that, Tacker said they also talked with officials at the local University of Alaska Southeast campus, Ketchikan Indian Community and others to help train young recruits.
Now, UAS offers various courses specific to the marine industry, and Vigor foots the bill for employees who take advantage of those classes. The shipyard has its own training center on-site, to teach welding to beginners, and to help more experienced welders reach the next certification level.
Tacker said those training programs are a cost that can only benefit the shipyard in the long run. He cited one young employee, who is the new night supervisor for the steel section of the ferry project.
“I hired Ben as a laborer, I think it was seven years ago, straight out of (Ketchikan High School), and he didn’t know nothing about shipyard work,” he said. “And now he’s going to be the steel supervisor for a $100 million project.”
Tacker said it’s not only Ketchikan High School graduates who can get jobs at the shipyard; they hire young employees from Metlakatla, Prince of Wales Island, Wrangell, Petersburg and elsewhere in Southeast. Tacker said it makes sense to train a local workforce, because otherwise the shipyard would have to hire from Down South.
“And why not teach our kids?” he said. “These kids can make $60,000 a year. That’s pretty good. That’s a good reason to stay home. I want every kid that wants to stay in this community, in these islands, to work with us. And they don’t have to know nothing. We’ll teach them everything they need to know.”
Doug Ward is director of shipyard development. He said the effort to recruit and train locally shows in the demographics of Ketchikan’s shipyard. He said the local operation is, on average, 8 to 10 years younger than the nationwide average for shipyards.
“When Troy said we’ve got a great workforce, that’s why,” Ward said. “We’ve got youth, they’ve been empowered to do big jobs and they’re doing a great job of doing them.”
In addition to building two new state ferries, Ketchikan’s shipyard has ongoing projects involving state ferries Kennicott and LeConte, and is just finished some repair work on the state ferry Taku. The shipyard also is working on several private contracts.
A public ceremony to commemorate the laying of the keels for the two new state ferries is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the shipyard. Gov. Bill Walker and his wife, Donna, plan to attend.