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By Rose Ragsdale
For Mining News 

UA budget cuts imperil mining training programs

University seeks funds from state lawmakers to expand programs for new engineering, mining, oil and gas and construction jobs


Last updated 4/23/2006 at Noon

Alaska lawmakers, grappling with a requested $36 million hike in the University of Alaska budget this year, could end up axing about $3 million aimed at training young Alaskans for the thousands of new jobs expected in the state's mining, oil and gas, process and construction industries during the next decade.

The sharply higher fiscal 2007 budget proposed in January by UA President Mark Hamilton and later endorsed by Gov. Frank Murkowski reflects unusually high fixed costs. These expenses include an estimated $30 million due to employee retirements and higher utility and health insurance premiums as well as $6 million for improving training programs.

"We have clearly laid out the costs needed to create more workers in high-demand fields, such as engineers, nurses, teachers, welders, etc. We feel it is important to begin the conversation on work force needs for the coming gas-driven economy, so we incorporated it into our budget," Hamilton told the lawmakers in January.

"For the first time in history, a majority of Alaskan high school students are choosing UA for their education instead of institutions outside," he said. "This is a major development. Statistics show these students remain in the state after their training, thereby forming the foundation of a skilled work force from which the state's businesses will recruit - UA may be the most reliable Alaska hire program yet."

Hamilton's plea, however, may go unheeded.

Training opportunities would be lost

The Alaska House of Representatives approved a $277 million operating budget for the university March 29 that earmarks $31.2 million for higher fixed costs and expanded training. That's about $5 million short of what is needed, university officials say.

Without the funds, important training opportunities will be lost.

Specifically, the university aims to provide faculty to support the industry-requested general engineering program in Anchorage. The program, started in response to employers' needs through reallocation and temporary funding sources, is exceeding demand expectations with 90 students applying for the first semester.

In addition to faculty for the engineering program, resources are required for the general education requirements, engineering research, and construction and mining training, including specific support for the Kensington Mine near Juneau.

Funding also will support and enhance the national and local award-winning Alaska Native Science and Engineering scholars program and sustain the professional development training function for professional engineers. This program now has 75 Native students with a 95-percent retention rate, UAF officials say. The national average retention rate for Native Americans is under 30 percent.

In conjunction with industry partners and in recognition of the pending construction boom, UA is also developing an expansion plan to double the number of its engineering graduates. This request is in addition to the funding for the general engineering program in Anchorage. This plan will require funding for career awareness, recruitment, and additional faculty for program growth. Additional requests are planned for FY08 and FY09.

Plans also call for expanding the Mining Training and Process Technology program at Kenai Peninsula College, traditionally focused on oil and gas and process technology, in response to the needs of several new mining operations in Alaska.

First priority existing programs

"Our first priority is the university's existing programs that have no other form of support, and our second priority is expansion of the work force training program for mining, gas line and engineering jobs," explained Pat Pitney, UA associate vice president for planning and budget development.

Studies show that jobs in oil and gas, mining and process fields tend to be permanent, Pitney said April 11. "Once an Alaskan fills them, those jobs are filled for a generation," she added.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a $34.3 million budget increase proposal April 11 in a 5-2 vote but not before some lawmakers complained about the increase.

"I can't see how the state can sustain these increases over the next few years," said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, during discussion leading up to the vote.

The Senate still must approve the university budget request and then the House and Senate must reconcile their differences in conference committee.

"We're hoping that $3 million will stay in. Right now, the Senate has proposed a $34.3 million budget increase and another mechanism that would cover the higher fuel prices," Pitney said. "If the Legislature approves that amount, it would get us into those program enhancements."


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