Building and deploying a local welding workforce

Sharla Gunlik of Kongiganak welds together metal plates at Yuut Elitnaurviat's first of a three part Welding Certification course. photo courtesy of Azara Mohammadi

by Azara Mohammadi

A career in welding means opportunities to work outside – a major draw for young workers like Sharla Gunlik, 24. “I was never interested in an office job,” Gunlik says. Recently, she worked outside on the new boardroad project in Kongiganak, Alaska.

Gunlik just finished the first in a three-part welding certification course at Yuut Elitnaurviat in Bethel, Alaska. Monday evening, she returned to her mother’s home of Kongiganak, to get ready for her next class. She will be the first person in her family to work in construction.

Gunlik and her classmates have been living on the Yuut campus for the past twenty days during the first installment of their training. The students come from six villages with upcoming Department of Transportation (DOT) projects, where they will have the opportunity to put their new skills to use. Their travel, meals and dormitory housing are provided so they can focus on their classes while they are in Bethel. After a short break, the students will return to the Yuut campus for the second certification course, starting November 2.

So far, they are on track to complete all three courses – and then this young welding workforce will be deployed to the villages that have transportation improvement projects and local staffing needs. The entire region will see immediate benefits from their hard work and persistence.

Welding is one of the many skills in high demand in the Calista region, and this program was built to respond to that need. Jeremy Osborne, Director of Programs at Yuut Elitnaurviat, is one of the program partners who coordinate this workforce development. Osborne says, “The relationship we’ve got now is what it’s supposed to be. This is doing exactly what our organization is designed to do.”

Osborne recalls the first welding students in 2012, who actually worked on the welding facility where the courses are held. “It gives you a lot of ownership in what you’re doing, and you’re doing it right, because you’re going to have to be sitting in those welding bays for the next four weeks,” he says.

Gunlik made a weld plate for her first training in the program. A weld plate is made by joining strips of metal through the careful heating and melting of surfaces. The goal of the exercise is to produce the most uniform square of metal possible.

“It’s sewing with fire,” says Samuel Marley, a program instructor and Welding Lead for Greatland Welding and Machine in Palmer. Like sewing, the continuity of the seams contributes to structural integrity and the overall aesthetic appeal of the final product.

Welding certification training is one of several training opportunities for students living in rural communities offered at Yuut Elitnaurviat, in partnership with Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP). Rural community members are encouraged to apply through AVCP Education, Employment, Training and Child Care (EET&CC). Applicants who qualify for funding are referred to Osborne. He conducts phone interviews to determine eligibility with special priority given to applicants who have demonstrated work performance and the ability to pass random drug tests and a background check.

Students like Gunlik, who helped with the boardroad project in Kongiganak, are high-priority candidates because they have a demonstrable work history as a laborer. Osborne explains, “They need to be going to work for AVCP on projects existing in the region, where there will be random drug testing. If they’ve completed our training and have at least demonstrated to us that they are serious about making this substance-free life decision, then they’ll be a welder. Real world jobs require that level of commitment.”

Other upcoming workforce development programs include boiler repair and aluminum welding certificate programs, ideal for students in rural areas who aspire to work on boats. For more information, call AVCP EET&CC at 1-800-478-3157.