Developing a steady local workforce
Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough is sparsely populated, with 7,000 residents (“shareholders”) living in 11 villages, the largest of which is Kotzebue, with a population of 3,700. The main industry in the borough is the Red Dog mine.
Red Dog and its major contractors currently have 527 regular and 103 temporary (mainly summer) employees for a total of 630, of whom 62% are NANA shareholders. As well there are about 200 people working on the Mill Optimization Project. But the aim of the 1982 Red Dog Operating Agreement was to have 100% shareholder employees at Red Dog by 2001. What’s the problem?
Finding enough trained employees in such a small population is difficult. The turnover rate has been very high, at 20% per year, especially in the entry-level jobs. It has taken adaptation from both the company and the shareholders, including the work rotation and training, but the turnover rate was down to a more manageable 11% in 2000.
“At first we used the four weeks on and two weeks off schedule,” says Red Dog’s chief of staff, Garth Elsdon. “This turned into a nightmare. We lost employees regularly. Here the seasons are so short for hunting and berry-picking, if these are important for feeding your families, you might quit your job.
“Therefore, we adapted the rotation: we went to ‘Whatever you want.’ As long as we have the same number of people here for each day, we can work it out. That has made a big difference in the turnover.”
The operation adheres to a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol. Random drug tests are used to ensure the policy is followed.
Training has been a difficult issue. “Every year we go to the high schools in the region to look for people interested in learning a trade,” says operations manager Tim Smith. They are enrolled in a 26-week pre-apprenticeship program through Alaska Technical Centre, paid for by Cominco. Moving the program from Seward to Kotzebue has helped retain students.
When the students complete the program and there’s an apprenticeship opening, they begin work at Red Dog at entry level wages, currently US$13.75/hour. On-the-job training continues, with one tradesman trainer for each apprentice. The top level–journeyman–pays $23.50/hour. In an area of high unemployment, steady wages at these rates make a big economic impact on families and entire communities.
The current training programs and flexible rotations will eventually lead to 100% shareholders in the hourly positions. However, it’s a different story for the staff positions, which require higher education.
The Agreement stipulated that the company provide US$30,000 per year for college and university scholarships for shareholders. In a society of sharing, the money was divided amongst many first year students, but few students were advancing to graduation. The program was changed three years ago to cover all the costs of any shareholder in a mining-related discipline who kept a 2.5 or better grade point average. The original six students has now blossomed to 15 full-time university students whom Cominco Alaska supports for a total of more than US$200,000/year.