Katrina Chertkow graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage earlier this month with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. A member of the Honors College, she graduated summa cum laude, and is pursuing a master’s degree in integrated marketing and communications at Northwestern University in the fall.
Chertkow is a high achiever by any definition. And yet, her career path is uncertain.
“I’m not sure what my career options are after grad school, which avenues to take,” she said. “Should I work for a marketing agency, start my own business, or freelance?”
Cherkow’s uncertainty isn’t surprising. Students graduating this spring have watched as the number of people spending their career with one employer rapidly shrinks, and an increasing number of individuals have multiple careers in their lifetime.
The Freelancers Union says that 34 percent of the U.S. workforce — 53 million Americans — are working as freelancers. With the rise of the “gig economy” short-term employment contracts will become more common.
Workforce development serves both individuals and businesses with the objectives of:
Preparing the workforce with the skills necessary to meet current and anticipated labor needs
Supporting job retention and career advancement
Connecting workers and employers in the labor market
— International Economic Development Council
For those in workforce development, this raises an interesting question: How can we prepare Alaskans for an ever-evolving world of work?
Christi Bell, executive director for the UAA Business Enterprise Institute, says that higher education is already transforming to meet workforce and employer needs: “Some universities are focusing more on certificates and very targeted proofs of learning, and others are moving toward a ‘2+2+2’ model, which essentially means that students will come to university throughout their lifetime for ‘just in time learning’ — education that provides them with the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for the exact point they are at in their careers.”
For example, students could earn an electrician certificate, return in a few years to complete a bachelor degree in electrical engineering, and later enroll in a masters program for project management or sign up for specialized arctic engineering classes.
Although this may seem to be a novel approach to career readiness and education, consultant and business advisor David Eisenberg says history is repeating itself: “Prior to the divestiture of AT&T (mandated in 1982), for example, workforce development provided by the Bell System was second-to-none in the technology sector. There was a highly-structured educational system within the Bell companies which coupled all manner of training — technical, supervisory, cultural, etc. — with specific experiential tracks to build the employee bench and future leadership.
“It was well accepted that individuals with this sort of Bell System training were as well prepared for workplace advancement as university graduates at the time.”
Preparedness for the workplace is a growing challenge for universities.
“Hiring decisions are still made based on a degree, but we’re simultaneously hearing employers from all sectors tell us that they see a lack of ‘career-spanning’ skills from university graduates,” says Bell.
Bill Popp, president and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., agrees, noting that he often hears complaints from businesses regarding the lack of available qualified workforce.
“It’s one of the biggest barriers cited in our business confidence survey,” he said. “Employers aren’t finding the skilled and professional workforce they want to hire. Quality of entry level workforce is also an issue.”
Of survey respondents, 59 percent said that the availability of professional and technical workforce was a barrier to business growth
Skill gaps include a combination of critical thinking, critical communication, problem identification and problem solving, and increasingly a range of interpersonal skills, sometimes called “soft skills.” This spans leadership, teamwork, and networking as well as timeliness, engaging with customers, and performing to one’s highest ability.
Bell says that although universities can encourage soft skills through class presentations, internships, and work preparedness seminars, the best way for students to obtain them is through applied work environments.
She sees an opportunity for economic developers to bridge between universities and employers, explaining, “Universities are going to need to incorporate more interdisciplinary and experiential learning experiences into the traditional academic curriculum.”
Economic developers are already making progress in this direction. In Anchorage, AEDC recently released the Internship Playbook to help companies establish and enhance internship programs through sharing best practices, foundational information, program structures, policies and procedures.
Popp explains, “Internships can be an amazing asset for any size company, as well as any job seeker looking to get an edge in their search for employment. Done right, internship programs can be a great source of new talent both for the company and the community.”
Students can also look to professional associations to grow their networks and their skills. The Alaska chapters of both the American Marketing Association and the Public Relations Society of America offer low cost student memberships and deeply discounted training opportunities, and the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Group provides leadership and networking opportunities for Alaskans ages 21 to 39.
Further, a group of professionals is exploring the launch of a Code School to train Alaskans in the basics of computer science, an increasingly sought-after area of knowledge.
Internships and other training opportunities outside the classroom not only build critical skills, they also distinguish applicants during the hiring process.
“I used to scan resumes looking for the ‘black sheep’ — someone with unique training and experience that stands out from the rest of the flock,” says Eisenberg. “My most valuable employees were those who had a variety of unusual experiences or interests or had taken what seemed to be a somewhat eccentric career path. They tended to demonstrate — through action — a willingness to take risks, make mid-course corrections (if necessary), and satisfy a thirst for continuous learning and self-development.”
For qualified job seekers, there’s no shortage of job opportunities. According to AEDC, there were 31,000 jobs posted, representing more than 700 occupations at 4,800 employers during 2017 in Anchorage alone.
Chertkow says that a combination of academic and service industry experience make her feel well-prepared for both graduate school and her future career.
“My undergraduate research projects taught me project management, follow through, and team-collaboration while my jobs in retail and food service taught me customer service skills.”
Gretchen Fauske is marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and small business. As the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development she is responsible for leading the entrepreneurship, marketing, and outreach efforts of CED as well as providing strategic leadership for both CED and the UAA Business Enterprise Institute.