Growing a modern workforce in Ketchikan

The Ketchikan Shipyard. 2013 Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska.
The Ketchikan Shipyard. 2013 Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska.

The Ketchikan Shipyard had a reputation in the 1980s and 90s as a giant money pit. The state spent millions to build it, and critics complained it couldn’t do cost-effective repairs. Operators lost money. The yard closed for two years. Then, with big infusions of state and federal cash, along with local support, the yard got going again. It now provides 200 year-round jobs and is building two major new ferries for the Alaska Marine Highway System. Today, shipyard development director Doug Ward spoke at a U.S. Senate hearing about what he hopes will be the yard’s new reputation, as a model of workforce development for modern manufacturing.

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Forget grease-stained coveralls. When Ward describes the workers at the Ketchikan shipyard, he describes multi-skilled employees who are furthering their education.

“It is no longer a dirty, grubby job. Almost every production phase in the shipyard has become so technically advanced, that it takes a minimum of the equivalent of a two-year associate degree to become a productive entry-level worker.”

Ward says the yard has partnerships with high schools, colleges and tribal organizations to develop a talent pipeline and educate its workers. He says it takes investment from all sectors – public, private and philanthropic – to build a globally competitive work force. And, Ward says, the worker’s education continues on site, to suit the worker’s needs and the evolving demands.

“I think those of us that have respect for the frontline worker and begin to treat the frontline worker as a fixed asset with a 30-year lifespan, and if we as a society can provide the educational tools and training tools for them to take advantage of the technology that we have available, that we will be back – certainly in the shipbuilding world – as competitive as any nation in the world,” Ward said.

Ward was on a panel to discuss advanced manufacturing, along with a Boeing executive and the president of the Council on Competitiveness.  They clearly won over Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

“This is unbelievable what you guys are doing,” said Franken. “And this … makes me an optimist.”

Disbelief certainly plagued the Ketchikan shipyard for years. But now the yard is building two big state ferries, thanks to a $100-million non-competitive award. They will be the largest ships ever built in Alaska. Sen. Lisa Murkowski acknowledged her pride for Ketchikan.

“If you were to have told people in the Ketchikan area that in our little shipyard that we would be taking on building the Alaska-class ferry project, if you had made this statement some 20 years ago, they would have said, ‘that’s pie-in-the sky. We can’t build ships like that. That all happens down south,'” she said. “And we’ve changed that dynamic.”

The yard is owned by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and operated by Vigor, a for-profit company in the Pacific Northwest. The Ketchikan operation has benefitted from substantial public investment, both to create the shipyard and to develop the workforce. Ward says shifting from ship repair to ship-building was key to the yard’s stability.

“Ship repair is very uncertain. You never know what you’re going to find when you being opening and inspecting systems on a ship,” he said. “Compared to shipbuilding, where you have a complete set of plans, drawn out in detail and you have time to develop a build strategy and put that plan into effect. It’s much more organized than ship repair.”

Ward says the ferry project is about 25 percent complete and they expect to deliver the first ship in 2018.