Friday, September 21, 2018

No 4-Year Degree Required for Some Smart Alaskans

[This story was originally written as a submission in response to a request by a publisher who ultimately did not use it. 
I regret it was not available for discussion during the election.]

Autumn is the season when deciding whether to attend school is an important consideration for people with low skills who want to continue to live in Alaska. This is also a great time to look at how Alaskans seeking to stay here can find meaningful careers.

The economy here is very specific about what human resources it needs during the current recession. To be successful in this job market, training after receiving a high school diploma or GED must consider what have been identified as in-demand “priority occupations”.

Given Alaska’s place among the states academically, and the amount paid for Alaska Public Education, policy makers must consider new approaches to delivering basic education throughout the state.

Alaska Economy Reality

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development (DOLWD) in July issued its monthly Economic Trends magazine looking at the cost of living in Alaska. Economist Neal Fried reports that inflation hovered near a record low for a third straight year during 2017, with the Anchorage Consumer Price Index increasing just 0.5 percent. “That rate has been lower just four other times since 1960, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began producing inflation data for Anchorage,” according to this report.1

The Anchorage rate of inflation is much higher than the national rate over the last few years, mostly due to a cooling Anchorage housing market with continuing recession. By contrast, the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased at the end of July by 4.1 percent (April through June). This is the fastest growth in four years while Outside housing markets are generally robust.2

A prosperous Outside economy provides incentive for young Alaskans to leave for better job opportunities elsewhere.

“No other economic indicator has more daily ramifications for people than inflation. It’s tied to bargaining agreements, wage negotiations, child support payments, real estate agreements, and—as of 2017—minimum wage adjustments. Because inflation has been so low, Alaska raised its minimum wage by just a nickel in 2017 and four cents in 2018,” explained Fried.3

Unfortunately, Alaska’s economy was rated worst in the United States in the third quarter of 2017, according to Business Insider: Alaska is among the top 10 state’s GDP rates--with a per capita of $70,574--while average weekly wage rate is $1,012.09. But Alaska’s labor market is the weakest in the country with a December 2017 unemployment rate of 7.3 percent.

Alaska was one of only two states that lost nonfarm payroll jobs.4

There are good paying jobs in Alaska for people trained for them, but it costs more to live in Alaska--always has. That is the first reality of anyone expecting to make a living here. The second reality is that this state has been losing jobs; May 2018 was the 32nd consecutive month Alaska has recorded job losses—down -0.6 percent statewide.

Remember when we had great increases in summer employment? This was a destination for many young Americans going to college and working in cannery slime lines or setting chokers for Southeast logging operations. High pay long hour natural resource opportunities have been lost, and replaced by low-pay tourism service jobs.

Total visitor spending in 2014-15 was estimated to be $4.17 billion producing 39,700 jobs and a total Labor Income of $1.29 billion, according to the Alaska Department of Commerce.5

The best spin to be put on Alaska’s employment situation is job losses during the current recession were at their worst back in September 2016 (-2.5 percent).
While Alaska’s unemployment rate is highest in the nation, it is right at its 10-year average, according to Fried. Alaska is still losing ground on wages, but the losses are getting smaller: Overall Alaska ranks 50th in the nation for unemployment rate, 50th for private sector job growth, 50th for overall job growth, 46th for government job growth and 42nd for construction job growth.6

Given this reality, what are the possibilities for a young person determined to stay in Alaska expecting to enter a career that would provide long-term employment security? Let’s look at the unemployment profile:

Unemployment is highest in rural Alaska, according to DOLWD: During May of 2018 the Interior Region was at 7.0% unemployment, Northern Region was 12.1%, Southwest Region was 11.8%, Gulf Coast Region was 7.3% and Southeast Region was 5.7%, bettering the Anchorage/Mat-Su rate of unemployment, which was 6.4%.

Basic Skills are Necessary to Access Higher Level Training

An estimated 92 percent of Alaskans have a high school diploma or higher, compared to 86 percent nationally. This is good as far as it goes, but the academic decline of Alaska Public Education makes this a meaningless statistic.

Let’s use the government’s own numbers to examine the problem. The Alaska Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Combined Plan 2018 Update was released July 2. Each governor of each state must submit a plan to the U.S. Secretary of Labor that outlines a four-year workplace development strategy. Among the requirements of the plan is a “Strategic Planning Elements” section that analyzes the State’s current economic environment and identifies the State’s overall vision for workforce development. Additionally, since Alaska receives significantly more Federal spending than most other states, this is a critical piece of the state’s economy. According to this report, Alaska also enjoys a concentration of typically high-wage natural resource and mining jobs that are more than three times as concentrated here than in other parts of the nation.7

These are the jobs Alaska should be targeting to be filled.

From the WIOA Report:

Overall job growth of 5.8 percent is projected by a gain of 19,700 anticipated Alaska jobs between 2014 and 2024. Health care and “social assistance” sectors are expected to grow 16 percent. Leisure and hospitality are projected at 11 percent. Professional and businesses services, seven percent.

By contrast, mining employment--including oil and gas--is expected by DOLWD to lose 1,100 jobs over those 10 years. Our once mainstay Alaska construction sector is expected to grow only 11.7 percent.7

These projections should not cause young Alaskans to give up on their dreams of living here, however. Being a report to the federal government, it is meant to provide arguments for more funding.

But there is more to worry about:

This Alaska WIOA Plan says there is ongoing concern that 15 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds have not completed high school. According to the “2010 Alaska Career and Technical Education Plan”, every year approximately 8,000 Alaska students graduate from high school. This report was generated as a joint effort between the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED), DOLWD, and the University of Alaska, establishing that several thousand Alaska youths reportedly exit without securing a high school diploma. Of the graduates, less than half transition into college and only 18.5 percent will still be in school by age 19. The report states: Alaska ranks fifth in the nation for teens not in school and not working. 8

Our state has 54 school districts, including a statewide boarding school, most of which have at least one career and technical education program (CTE) geared toward one or more of Alaska’s “priority industries”, according to the AWAI Plan Report. Many districts have articulation agreements with the University of Alaska so students can earn concurrent secondary and postsecondary credits, making the UA system our new statewide high school.

High school CTE programs are aligned to industry, academic, and employability skills, and to school-to-apprenticeship standards: “Districts are trying to keep CTE programs viable by forming consortiums with other districts or programs, offering alternative delivery models such as intensive academies, using equipment simulators for training, or partnering with local employers or other agencies to share facilities or instructors,” says the report.9

Additionally, many Alaskan parents unhappy with public education options in their respective ZIP codes have enrolled their children into enterprise programs from far away rural districts like Delta or Iditarod, and taken on the job of homeschooling their own children. The measure of this is hard to determine in terms of actual students being home schooled, but DEED lists 30 such Correspondence Schools in its directory.10

PEAKS tests

A list of most Alaska school districts, with superintendent salary correlated to Alaska PEAKS Test scores is provided herein. Given the outcomes from investment some may ask how long can we accept this broken system?

Employer Training to Supplement Public Education for “Priority Occupations”

The “trickle-down” effect of inadequate public education is high-level employers must find potential employees who can train up to skill levels needed to meet the challenges of Alaska’s core GDP needs. Some are even setting up their own apprenticeship programs, as unions have long done with apprentice training programs. For typical Alaskans the choice is either college or skill training through a trade school and apprenticeship. DOLWA has prepared a comprehensive Employer Tool Kit for establishing a registered apprenticeship program for almost any business.11

As an Adult Basic Education instructor at the Mat-Su Job Center 4-1/2 years I learned that the first thing asked of any new job seekers is: “Do you have your high school diploma or GED?” If not, visitors are urged to get one before attempting to find work using available state databases.

The GED Assessment is updated periodically. In 2014 it was changed from a paper and pencil test to a controlled computerized assessment nationally normed at 12th grade.10 The normed grade level of Alaska public education graduates is unknown, but statewide assessments in 2018 have placed Alaskan students at or near the bottom of all U.S. states.12

Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exams (HSGQE) under the federal No Child Left Behind Act initiative were given twice to high school sophomores, and twice again each successive year—11th and 12th grades--until passed. HSGQE measured 10th grade skills. Certificates of Graduation were given in lieu of diplomas until the HSGQE was passed, even allowing students to take the test when they were no longer in attendance.

When the Alaska Legislature revoked requirement to take the HSGQE in 2014, with passage of HB 278, all students who could not pass it were given their diplomas retroactively, thus reducing the value of all public education graduation certifications for the past nearly two decades. 13 Sec. 14.03.075. College and career readiness assessment; retroactive issuance of diploma

DOLWD provides an Adult Basic Education program separate from the Department of Education. At each job center “WorkKeys” assessment of employees is utilized to assure basic skills of applicants prior to referral to potential employers. According to the website:  ACT WorkKeys® assessments are the cornerstone of ACT workforce solutions. The assessments measure foundational skills required for success in the workplace, and help measure the workplace skills that can affect job performance.14

This is all part of our hodge-podge approach to training people to find a career.

Professed outcomes of the Adult Basic Education program at DOLWD is “for adult learners to reach a higher level of self-sufficiency as individuals, community members, and employees.”16 People as young as 16 years old can now take the improved GED (with parental permission) and skip traditional high school for direct access to college or career training options. To take the GED a student must withdraw from the public school they are attending. The GED is also an appropriate way to validate a home school education.

Priority Industries require certain skills in Alaska’s Workforce.

Alaska hire--the prioritizing of Alaskans over bringing other skilled workers to the state---has always been a challenge, and methods have been developed to measure it. Alaska has long been the only state that requires employers to report the occupations of their workers as part of mandatory unemployment insurance reporting.15 The detailed occupational data reported by employers, together with Permanent Fund application data on residency of individual workers, allows Alaska to produce a report each year showing the industries and occupations with the highest percent of nonresident hires. Certain “Priority Occupations” have been identified as generally providing a livable wage and being either difficult to fill with qualified Alaskans or in high demand as a result of projected growth or attrition/turnover.16

Likewise certain industries have been identified as “Priority Industries” because they are thriving in Alaska and need employees in identified Priority Occupations. Reliance on nonresident workers in priority industries and in-demand occupations indicates a skill gap.

A McDowell Group 2016 study titled Cross-Industry Workforce Development Priorities identified key skills, trainings, and concepts needed across Alaska’s construction, oil and gas, mining, health care, and maritime industries. The Alaska Process Industry Consortium (APICC) is made up of companies in those Priority Industries. They paid for the study whose goal was to identify priority occupations and workforce needs in common between the various priority employers.17

A young person looking for a skill set leading to a broad-based career in Alaska’s economy should consider what they want to do and how they might assure employability, as explained in this study.

Pathways of interest in those industries include 1. Manufacturing production process development, 2. Engineering and technology, 3. Transportation operations, 4. Therapeutic services, 5. Construction, 6. Natural resources systems, and 7. Maintenance, Installation, and Repair.

The McDowell study found: “Common skills needed include critical thinking, active listening, reading comprehension, social perceptiveness, speaking, writing, complex problem solving, mathematics and science, time management, and active learning.”
Instructional note: This is boilerplate jargon for what employers want in ANY high skilled position. Basic skills, plus training for specific employability lead to a workplace tailored for Alaska’s economy.

From the McDowell Report: The following first pair of charts detail identified top “priority occupation” skilled jobs in Alaska, with number of expected openings, and wage ranges available.

These are identified Alaska “Top Jobs.”

Of 53 listed Priority Occupations in this report, 17 require a minimum of HS Diploma/GED while 8 more mandate an Associate Degree or Postsecondary Non-degree Award. 21 other job categories call for a Bachelor degree and only 3 require a Master’s Degree.

Given this cross-section of job categories, a person seeking career stability by training into skills having multiple priority employment possibilities, can also cross reference priority jobs to skills with the following charts:

Our economy is in the doldrums. We have a mediocre top-heavy K-12 system in which our Alaska students rank below the national average, and high unemployment for low-skill workers. Young Alaskans wishing to have a sustainable career must use smart strategies that correlate with what our state economy needs to find a career ladder that will remain connected at the top over a working life. What is your passion? Where can you get the training you need? How does what you what to do align with what Alaska’s economy needs now and in the foreseeable future? Some smart Alaskans don’t need to go to college to figure this out.

Education to Career Policy Considerations

The current structure of Alaska Public Education pre-dates discovery of oil on the North Slope and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It is time to update how education funds are spent.

In 1975 Anna joined as a plaintiff in a lawsuit, Tobeluk v. Lind in what became the Molly Hootch Case for the Eskimo girl whose name headed the original 1972 list of plaintiffs suing the state for failing to provide rural community high schools. In 1976 Marshall Lind, Commissioner of Education under Governor Jay Hammond, signed a detailed consent decree providing for establishment of a high school program in 126 villages covered by the litigation, unless people in the village decided against a local program. This was the easy political way out; Alaska was about to become wealthy beyond most people’s imaginations from oil development, and throwing money at public education meant construction jobs building schools and communities keeping their young people at home in programs run mostly by Outside teachers on their Alaskan Adventures. With more than 50 Alaska school districts, each with an elected school board, this was a political win-win-win for Gov. Hammond.18

Over the: decades since oil began flowing from Prudhoe Bay our public education system has been a crazy quilt of programs in schools with mostly itinerant teachers. We should have been able to hire the best teachers in the world for what we pay but instead we have a wave of teachers coming and going each year leaving a legacy of lower academic outcomes with ever higher costs.

Suggested Policy Considerations:

Policy 1: Establish a commission to research and consider public education needs for Alaska in context with past commissions established for that purpose.

Policy 2: This commission shall review all possibilities for consolidation of current school districts into 12-14 regional school attendance areas, each with at least one regional high school fed by multiple k-8 schools. Mt. Edgecumbe has been a successful boarding school and could serve as a model exemplar.

Policy 3: Examine and consider Alaska Native organization current efforts in public education programming. Seek to establish partnership potentials for sharing the challenges of enhancing quality and effiient public education throughout the state.

Policy 3: Examine the University of Alaska involvement in teacher training and establish guidelines recognizing training and career objectives with curriculum expectations.

Policy 4: Inventory current technology applications in public education and potential for consolidation and economic efficiencies for all schools.

Smart Alaskan parents are helping their young adult children identify their passions, consider entry points to entering chosen careers, and taking steps to find the training paths necessary for lifelong Alaska employment success. An examination of how Alaskans can benefit from our tremendous investment in infrastructure and personnel can result in delivery of better academic programs suited to Alaska’s unique needs and opportunities.

Donn Liston, MEd. Is a retired Alaskan teacher whose family first came to the state in 1962 so his father could work as a civilian contractor with RCA Service Company on the White Alice System.


Alaska Labor Trends Publication

3Ibid Labor Trends, Pg 14



6Ibid Labor Trends, Pg 17

16  Ibid pg 22

17 McDowell Group Cross-Industry Workforce Development Priorities Report, PG 1

2018 ©


This is the season when deciding whether to attend school is an important consideration for people with low skills who want to continue to live in Alaska.  The economy here is very specific about what human resources it needs during the current recession and training after receiving a high school diploma or GED must consider what have been identified as in-demand “priority occupations”. Alaska Public Education needs new policy considerations.

Alaska Economy Reality

1.     High cost of living and inflation
2.     Highest unemployment in the US
3.     Seasonal jobs are low-paying
4.     Minimum number of Jobs exist in rural Alaska

Public Education’s expanding mission

1.     High School Diplomas aren’t worth much
2.     GED option provides direct route to training
3.     Districts around the state are expanding their missions

Alaska employers have identified “priority occupations” which will be in demand in the foreseeable future.

1.     Identified in-demand employer needs
2.     Training required to meet those needs
3.     Routes to get to those jobs

Recent federal actions provide hope for increased opportunities for Alaska workers.
1.     Drilling in ANWR
2.     Other development options

While Alaska is in recession Alaskans are resilient people and smart ones will choose career paths leading to long-term success in this difficult economy.

Policy Considerations for Improving Career Success for Alaskans

Thursday, September 6, 2018

How to Right Good

How to Think about Writing


September 6, 2018 by Donn Liston (first published in

Ship of State. Statehood group travels to Washington, D.C. in 1950 on board a DC4. Senator Gunnard Enebreth and Bob Atwood sit behind two unidentified women. B1990.014.5.StateBattle.2.21 Steve McCutcheon Collection, Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Anchorage, Ak.

Writing isn’t talking on paper; writing is writing.

Talking is spontaneous. We utter words for others to hear (or to ourselves) and–in response to their spontaneous response to each statement–we again utter more words.
Over a period of time, this becomes a “conversation.”
But writing is different. And people who simply put down their thoughts on paper as if they were chatting with a neighbor are not writing. Such a transcript of ideas is called “stream of consciousness.” It is usually boring. Like elbows, everybody has a couple of these hanging around—in their head.
So writing is different. Writing is orchestrated and deliberate and spontaneous only when the structure for ideas is ultimately set, like Jello. The stream of ideas leads to a conclusion, which may be alluded to from the beginning, and leaves the reader with satisfaction from reading that piece.
Like the title of this piece: How to Right Good. My intent for such a mangled title is to entice readers to see why I would state something so absurd as the title of an article about how to write well. That’s called a “hook.”
What comes next?
So far, if you are reading this, it has worked on YOU. The rest of my charge as a writer is to reel you in like a silver salmon kicking and trying to get away until you are landed.
Writing begins with how you THINK about what you want to say, and how you introduce your thesis to your reader. In his piece, my thesis is: “Writing is different than talking.” To explain that concept I first introduce the incorrect sentence anti-thesis: “How to Right Good.” If I had uttered that statement in a conversation it would probably float right past as other more significant ideas arose and that one sank.
But as a written statement, my title is undeniable. My argument for writing an absurd title is to get your attention and point out why the sentence is incorrect: First, the word “right” is incorrect. The correct word is “write.” Second, the word “good” is incorrect. The correct word is “well.” The correct form of that sentence is: “How to write well.”
Can you imagine how many articles must be on the Internet with that boring title? In writing that incorrect statement I antagonized the reader. I invited criticism. However, when the reader sees my explanation of the antithesis, the thesis becomes clear on its merits, through synthesis—a conjoining of thesis/antithesis.
I began my own journey into being a writer as a high school kid in Anchorage. Our schools don’t train writers; for the most part they teach how to talk on paper. First-language English speakers learn how to talk from their parents and the environment. We can hear correct language usage.
Learning to write requires extra effort.

Wannabe Writers: Would you like to improve YOUR writing?

I could teach YOU how! Do you have stories, or would you like to write your memoirs? Contact me about how we might form a group of writer Wannabes who strive to learn the craft of writing together; real writing, not talking on paper!

I could also tutor you individually if that works better. I have taught many people how to write in classrooms, and to pass the GED. Based on a response from this outreach we will develop times, meeting places, and I will provide curriculum and instruction to help any Wannabe to become a better writer.

Since anything worthwhile has value, expect to pay a fair price for this individualized instruction course!


As a youth I carried newspapers, and I read newspapers, and I became intrigued by the random statements about life in Anchorage represented in “Letters to the Editor.” Anybody could write a letter to the editor about anything! My devious nature saw that as an opportunity to have fun.
I remember my first letter to the editor published somewhere around 1968; it was about recent public concern about homeless people sleeping in the downtown Park Strip. I concluded in my letter that the concern must be for the grass–from people wetting themselves in their sleep.
Nobody was impressed but I had been published!
This led to more letters and more sophistry. As a young person with an Anchorage School District education, I already knew everything, of course. I needed an outlet to tell everybody else how things work. (Some might say that hasn’t changed in my character.)
I read both Anchorage papers; the Anchorage Daily News and the Anchorage Times, and I would write letters to each. Some got published, but most importantly for me was discovering the difference of thought between those two publications.
The Viet Nam War was going on. Alaska was a new state with great expectations from recent oil discoveries in Prudhoe Bay. I could write a Letter to the Editor and see how my grammatical errors or phrasing were changed. Shockingly, I discovered, sometimes the editor actually changed the way something was stated to make it say something I had not intended!
The power of being an editor.
But my dad was not amused by my public statements in the papers of Anchorage. He made it clear to me that he thought I was making a fool of myself. So I responded to his criticism in print.
To the liberal Daily News, I wrote a letter about how terrible it was that America was involved in Viet Nam. I used colorful language of the time and signed with my newly assumed name, DONN, to distinguish myself from being a junior with the same name as my father. To the conservative Times, I wrote a letter praising the Viet Nam war effort and castigating misguided youth who opposed it with slogans and protests. I signed that letter with my dad’s name, Donald Liston. The final statement, posed as being from my own father in the Times letter, was: “My good father gave me a spanking when I was 18 years old and I believe that is what a lot of these young people need today!”
Both letters appeared in their respective papers on the same day! I was delighted but my father was not amused in the least. He later told me he was offended when one of his blue-collar co-workers slapped him on the back and said: “I agree entirely with you, Don. Your kid is a nut!”
Writing is about elevating ideas into something mutual for others to share. Writing requires premeditation, planting of a seed in your consciousness, and letting the resulting stream become enriched just as a wall is built with each new brick.
I liked to write so much that one day as a college student at Alaska Methodist University (Now APU) I went to see the Daily News editorial page editor, Tom Brown, and told him I wanted to work there. I agreed to write for any section and by now he kind of liked me. I had attended the same church as publisher Kay Fanning so she was open to the idea, and they signed me up. I still have many of the stories I wrote over the 2-3 years I worked as a staff writer for The Daily News.
What they needed most was a sports reporter. I was up for that and even covered some cross-country ski events on skis. But the event that taught me how to write under pressure happened one night when I was sent to cover a hockey game.
“Have you ever watched hockey, Donny?” asked the copy editor. “No,” I replied. I remember his pitch even today: “Well, it is an exciting sport I bet you would like,” he continued. “Two teams wearing ice skates, and using sticks, skate around a rink trying to knock this little disk called a puck into opposing goals. We need somebody to cover tonight’s game at the Sports Arena. I was hoping you would do it,” he explained.
“Sure I will,” I responded.
I went to the game and kept track of what happened on my reporter’s pad.
I talked to fans and gained clarification of anything I didn’t understand by the officials. I took it very seriously and it was late by the time the game ended.
Upon arriving back at the newspaper plant, then located on Post Road, in the dark of winter. I remember how quiet it was. There at his desk sat the copy editor, who lit up as he saw me come into the newsroom.
“Did you get the story?” he enthused. “Yep, I got it!” I replied. “Wonderful, he continued stepping around the desk toward me and putting his arm around my shoulders. Come.”
So we walked through the doors to the “back shop” of the Daily News together, past the rattling teletype machines, into the hot metal press tomb. There all the pressmen were standing around with arms folded against their chest, or holding a coffee cup, obviously waiting for something to happen. A line of trolleys also waited patiently with metal plates, all having reverse renderings of everything that would soon be printed. The editor walked me up the line to Page One.
“How do you like it?” he asked, pointing to a reverse image of an event from the hockey game I had just covered. Photographer got a great shot, huh?”
“Well, yes!” I responded.
“And, right here next to that picture, do you see this big hole? That’s where YOUR story is going!” With a sweep of his hands, he continued: “These guys are all getting union pay to stand around until they can start the presses, meaning I need your story in about 10 minutes, okay? Oh, and no pressure, but if you screw up the whole town will know about it in the morning…”
That was a turning point in my writing career.
The adrenalin was intoxicating. I wrote that story and went on to cover hockey for the rest of the season.
And, many years later when I became a teacher, I told that story to my students. Then I would declare a topic and set a timer for them to produce a Page One story. Being 6th graders, they shared the thrill of writing for publication when I put each story on a construction paper backing and posted on the wall in the hallway for everyone in the school community to see.
I believe more people writing about the things that are important in our lives is enriching for all. So does any good editor.
One more reflection is in order: After graduating from AMU, and quitting The Daily News to start my own company, I had the occasion to stop at the Times to talk with its publisher, Robert Atwood. I felt that since I too was publishing regularly I deserved an audience with the old goat. I started the conversation in his intimidating office by saying: “You are supposed to have horns and a spiked tail from everything I’ve heard about you!”
He wasn’t fazed by that comment. He showed some interest in recent publications I showed him as we chatted, and then I asked him: “What are you looking at—those pieces of paper?”
“These are Letters to the Editor,” he replied, “and I’ve sure thrown a lot of YOURS in the trash!”

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