By Margaret Bauman
On the Lower Yukon River, where wild salmon have for centuries been key to subsistence survival, teen-agers are learning how this nutritious fish can lead them into myriad employment opportunities and help grow the regional economy.
The youth employment program, in which 141 students earned wages totaling $233,000 during the 2011 salmon run, is the brainchild of Kwik-Pak Fisheries, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association.
YDFDA is one of six community development quota associations formed 20 years ago to boost the economy and quality of life in 65 communities on the Bering Sea Coast, by involving them in the lucrative Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands groundfish, halibut and crab fisheries.
“It has worked fabulously for us,” said Jack Schultheis, Kwik’Pak’s fisheries manager, with one eye to the greying of the fleet, and the other to providing skilled employment to the next generation. “We’re trying to get the younger people more involved in the fishing business, bringing young kids into the business so they can learn what it is all about from the ground up.
“We want to demonstrate to them how important this industry is to the Lower Yukon.”
“We think, we hope this will do it,” he said.
“The whole structure of the fishery is family-oriented,” he said. “They fish with their families and then they come off of the boat and work for us. It’s getting young people involved in the main business that’s out there. It’s the only non-government economy.”
“The benefit for us is that these kids are really good, very reliable workers,” he said. “They take their jobs very seriously. The money means a lot to them, so they are really reliable workers. They are not trouble-makers.”
The students, who start at $10 an hour, comprise about one-third of the workforce at Kwik-Pak’s fish processing plant at Emmonak. During the fishing season, they rotate through jobs every two weeks, to find out where their career interests lie.
Students aged 14-15 years old learn the skills of being administrative assistants, receptionists, custodians, break room store workers, and public relations, sales and marketing skills. The 16 and 17 year olds work as packing room, boxing room and roe house workers.
The program ends each year two weeks before school starts, but quite a few of them come back and work after school. “We really miss them when school starts, Schultheis said. “It gives you a warm feeling that you have a bunch of young people with ambition, who want to work. We’re hoping these kids get more involved in the economics, the business side of it.”
Other students are employed in collecting scientific data about the salmon at the plant for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and at buying stations at Mountain Village, Kotlik and Nunam Iqua.
The whole idea behind the youth training/employment program is to have skilled employees to come back and work for the villages, said Judy Murdock, operations assistant manager for Kwik’Pak. “We had a lot of eager people. We wanted to get them on the job, to get them trained,” she said.
“And we’re not just an employer said Marilyn Charles, employment and training services coordinator. “I work with the school counselor (at Emmonak) to keep tabs on the students. We make sure they are going well in school.
“For people who don’t have consistency in their lives, this gives them a path, a guideline of some sort,” she said. “They see Kwik’Pak coming (during the fishing season) every year and they see they are building a relationship with Kwik’Pak.”
Kwik’Pak actually began employing regional youth in commercial fisheries back in 2001.
By 2010, 105 youths were putting in a total of more than 14,500 hours combined.
Last year the program employed 141 students and this coming summer, Kwik’Pak hopes to employ even more. Over the years these youth have also participated in other projects led by Kwik’Pak Fisheries, from painting churches and the women’s shelter in Emmonak and Alakanuk to building the fishermen’s store at Kwik’Pak.
They have also become involved in support of suicide prevention efforts, attending conferences led by regional elders and several community entities.
The youth employment program, says Kwik’Pak management, gives the communities a great sense of excitement of what the future holds for the region.
Kwik’Pak also is looking constantly to broaden the perspective of these teen-agers into the vast worldwide competition and potential of commercial fisheries.
In March, the CDQ group took two of its 18-year-old students to the International Boston Seafood Show to work at Kwik’Pak’s booth.
“They were just overwhelmed with the city of Boston itself, and they got a good impression of the competition, how huge in general the seafood industry is,” Schultheis said. “They met customers and talked to them. We had them work in the booth, talked to customers. One wants to go to college and go into marine biology. The other wants to go into fisheries operations. We think it is a really good program.”
In the future, Kwik’Pak is also looking at possibilities of bringing some of the students into Anchorage during winter months, for technical training, college courses and office training. “We are trying to do this so those kids go back to the villages and have jobs there,” he said.
A state Labor Department grant for $150,000 has helped fund wages, training, supplies and administrative services for the youth employment program, and a large career fair is planned for June.
Still, more funds are needed to help the program grow, Schultheis said.
Margaret Bauman can be reached at email@example.com.