Training Today For Tomorrow’s Alaska
UA Workforce Programs
The face of education is rapidly changing. Students today may access technology that allows them to mix chemistry in virtual-reality labs, troubleshoot boiler malfunctions on model power generators or learn the ropes on actual working models of industry equipment. Simulation technology—both virtual and real—helps overcome the challenges of delivering training to where it is needed to prepare a qualified labor force for the industries that need it. Associate Vice President of Workforce Programs Fred Villa leads the University of Alaska in its role of developing industry-driven training and degree programs focused on providing skilled Alaskan workers for Alaskan jobs.
About 15 years ago the health industry recognized that just as the baby boomer generation was aging and requiring more care, the health care workforce was also graying. It was readily apparent that a concerted effort to train a new generation of care providers was needed. Since that time other job sectors, including oil and gas development, mining, fishing, engineering and other key industries in Alaska have come to recognize a future workforce crisis situation will exist unless they attract and train quality workers today.
It is neither easy nor inexpensive to provide workforce training. Qualified teachers who are subject matter experts can be hard to attract and retain or are simply not available where the training is needed. The equipment needed for the classrooms and simulation labs can be extremely expensive. Class sizes are often necessarily small and course fees and tuition alone does not generate enough revenue to support the programs.
Since 2000, grant funding from the Alaska Technical Vocational Education Program (TVEP) has been an important driver of workforce development programs at the University of Alaska. TVEP funds must be used for technical and vocational training programs that align with regional workforce demands and the Alaska Workforce Investment Board’s (AWIB) industry priorities. Fred Villa represents the university as a member on AWIB and helps administer TVEP funds, and state general funds for workforce programs, to campuses throughout the system.
Representing the University
Representing the university on boards, commenting on issues and policies, keeping up to date on industry news and communicating weekly with the commissioners of the Department of Labor and Department of Education is a huge part of Villa’s role in workforce programs. Like a giant game of connect the dots, he tracks industry trends, state development plans and legislative priorities to point state and industry partners to the campuses, programs and agencies able to meet their needs. When there isn’t a program or training available University of Alaska Corporate Programs may step in to help deliver it, or a systemwide initiative designed to identify and share resources within and without the university is set into motion to implement the new program.
Alaskan industry partners see the benefit of the workforce training offered at the university and are stepping in to provide program support, sometimes in the form of cash investment, and other times—such as the donation of a working wellhead to the UAF Community and Technical College—in specialized equipment.
The university’s greatest strength is in being able to offer more than just industry-specific training. General employability skills are part of the advantage of a UA trained worker. Courses in math, English, communications and research, along with real-life lessons in teamwork, timeliness, deadlines and technology instill cross-skills valuable in all lines of work. Teachers are able to reinforce positive behaviors and interpersonal skills and foster work ethics that carry over into the workplace. The more that UA can do that, the more likely that those students will be successful in the future.
One of the biggest challenges in workforce development is providing the right amount of training, in the right areas, at the right time. It does no good to train thousands of miners before jobs are available. The university must balance the anticipated growth of an industry with training students for jobs that don’t yet exist in Alaska. However, by training workers to international standards, Alaskan students learn the skills needed to enter into an increasingly globalized workforce.
The university has done an incredible job in recent years bringing the workforce training message to Alaskan youth. Highly successful bridging programs that provide dual credit for high school and university work, summer science and engineering camps, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) and improved advising focused on career clusters and pathways show proven results through expanded enrollment, especially in UA’s engineering programs.
The university seeks to build relationships with other agencies and institutions to share simulation technology, coursework and other resources to improve curriculum. As technology improves, access to training through web-based learning will expand. Courses and certificate training programs currently only offered at individual campuses may be combined into specialized degree programs and delivered statewide. UA thereby avoids the significant investment that would be needed to duplicate the training at other locations. The university is actively analyzing and pooling campus resources to provide quality workforce training programs throughout the state.
Fred Villa was uniquely qualified for this important position, which bridges industry perspective and university initiatives. For 20 years he worked in the North Pole Refinery and helped to establish operations, fuel delivery and maintenance training programs. While working for Williams/BP he brokered an agreement with the university that they would not hire directly out of the newly formed process technology program without a commitment to see the student complete their university degree. This meant either waiting to hire an eligible student until after their program was completed or offering a flexible enough schedule to allow the student to finish their classes. This was a benefit for all parties. The university was assured that the student would succeed in the program, improving UA’s performance metrics, and the refinery knew they had a well trained and prepared employee trained not only in process technology but in the core coursework of a broad education provided with full degree study.
It was in part this recognition of the added value of earning a degree, and the history of collaboration between Villa and the university, that led former Vice President of University Relations Wendy Redman to create the office of Workforce Programs and hire Fred Villa to run it. At the same time, then-president Mark Hamilton launched a series of workforce and health care training initiatives throughout the university.
The Family Man
The North Pole Refinery was also where Villa met his wife Connie. After 25 years of marriage they have eight kids ages 5 to 22, 70 head of livestock—including cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys—a bull named Phil and a very special sow named Giselle. They live on 5.5 acres in North Pole that includes room for all the animals, a one-acre lawn for games, a zip line, a full campground with fire pit, a basketball court and a year-round petting zoo.
Remarkably for a couple that met in a refinery, the Villa household does not burn fossil fuel. An outdoor wood boiler burns year-round providing all the heat and domestic hot water for the household. It takes up to 25 chords a year. That’s a lot of chopping wood to do.
With August right around the corner, the Villa household is in a chaotic flurry of activity as the middle children, all active in 4-H animal husbandry, prepare their livestock, project books, displays, health records and transportation arrangements for the fair. In addition to 4-H, the family is active in sports and the church. Villa has recently been spending a good amount of time at the swimming pool helping out as a diving judge. From the moment he steps out the office, he and Connie coordinate all the logistics of transporting kids, doing chores, cooking dinner and other activities. Most evenings, while the kids work on homework and other projects, Fred and Connie sit back and enjoy a good game of scrabble to relax. He admits he doesn’t get to sleep much! Come 7 a.m. he’s back in the office tracking policies and looking for new opportunities for the University of Alaska Workforce Programs.