Lessons for Alaska on Workforce Development

People of all ages are unprepared for the evolving job market, but Alaska can adopt policies to help learners prepare for good careers and meet the needs of the state’s economy.

Alaska businesses are facing a shortage of workers. Job openings remain near record highs. It’s tempting to blame labor shortages entirely on the pandemic, yet the state has underperformed for years: Alaska had the highest unemployment nationwide from 2017 to 2019. From 2015 to 2018, the state experienced 36 months of declining employment — a period in which the U.S. as a whole saw steady expansion. The only Alaskan industry that grew between 2015-2021 was educational and health services. 2022 marked the tenth consecutive year in which more people left the state than moved in.

While Alaska’s economy struggles, students are taught that not going to college dooms them to a lifetime of low earnings. That simply isn’t true: students who choose non-four-year pathways such as associate degrees, apprenticeships, or occupational certificates often earn more than four-year degree holders for less debt.

Machinists, dental hygienists, plumbers, and electric line installers report median lifetime earnings between 10 and 60 percent higher than the earnings of four-year degree holders. At the University of Alaska, three of the top five degree programs ranked by typical earnings and debt burden were associate degrees and only one was a bachelor’s degree. Students who do pursue a four-year degree should choose a major and university that will allow them to pay off their student loan debt.

This odd combination of high unemployment and near-record job openings suggests that workers are not finishing a credential or degree that would lead to lucrative careers. Students leaving Alaska’s high schools and colleges should have credentials that mean something to businesses. One option for students to take advantage of existing coursework is the correspondence school allotment program. Enrolled families can use the allotment to pay for skills-based classes offered online or by private schools while being able to enroll in classes from their neighborhood public schools.

The state needs to do more to identify and promote in-demand careers in high school and college. There is a clear mismatch between the skills and certifications required by industry and those earned by students: Alaska needs more Microsoft Office specialists and paramedics, but too few students are earning these credentials in high school to meet in-state demand. Some credentials are extremely oversupplied, such as the food-handling ServSafe certificate and welding certifications endorsed by the American Welding Society (AWS).

The state of Alaska could identify in-demand credentials by undergoing a return-on-investment analysis of career and technical education (CTE) programs. The CTE programs offered in high schools and colleges should be valued by employers and lead to high-skill, high-wage jobs for students. Collecting robust data about student outcomes and using it to inform decisions about which CTE programs to offer would guarantee more students have access to high-quality credentials during high school.

The process considers how well programs align with K-12 and postsecondary certificates and degrees, industry certifications, and employment opportunities within the state. It also considers student outcomes like academic achievement, college readiness, postsecondary enrollment, and credential and certification attainment. Several states have the components needed for successful audits of their CTE programs, and Mississippi is currently undergoing one. Florida performed its first formal, statewide annual audit in 2020: more than a quarter of its programs needed further review of their institutional performance, and 5% required review of local or industry needs. If Alaska were to undergo an ROI analysis, it should make the findings of its audit transparent so students can make informed choices while unsuccessful programs are being phased out.

Parents and the public should know how well Alaska’s K-12 schools prepare their students for education, employment, or enlistment. Indiana has led the way by mandating the creation of the Indiana Graduates Prepared to Success (IndianaGPS) dashboard, which compiles statistics to measure students’ academic mastery; career and postsecondary readiness; communication and collaboration; work ethic; and civic, financial, and digital literacy. The dashboard compares certain inputs and outputs of a specific school or district — such as high school graduation rates, the percentage of students enrolled or employed in Indiana within a year, and the percentage of students earning college and career credentials — against the statewide average. Schools are also required to host a webpage of the same information in a similar format for transparency.

The state could also make as transparent as possible all the options for students by creating a student-facing resource website. Texas is in the process of developing the My Texas Future portal, which will contain an “integrated advising chatbot,” inform students of educational pathways and earnings potential, and provide resources for students enrolling in or returning to college. Any student-facing website for the state of Alaska should outline the true costs of college as well as the costs of specific programs, average student loan payments and total debt, and pathways to achieving in-demand jobs in local industries.

Alaska’s economy is not so different that the state can’t learn from others. Given the declining economic outlook and record job openings, Alaska should help workers earn credentials, fill in-demand and high-wage jobs, and meet the needs of local economies.