Heidi Zemach for SCN-
Dressed as he is in typical administrator clothing, it’s hard to picture Ben Eveland, the new director of AVTEC, Alaska’s Institute of Technology beneath a truck, building a house, or taking apart a diesel generator. But ever since Eveland began helping out on his relative’s farm in Wisconsin, at age 16, he’s loved working with his hands.
“On the farm you fix everything and drive everything,” Eveland said. Farming, and working for older farmers, modeled his work ethic to this day, he added. The new director has spent a long career, mostly in Alaska, teaching the trades and heading vocational education programs in middle and high schools, community colleges, and even in a prison setting. He’s tried to retire twice, but like old farmers who just can’t quit doing what their lives have been built around, every time Eveland tries, his passion draws him back in. So when he recently learned that AVTEC was looking for a new director, he applied, and he seems delighted to be learning the ropes and meeting everybody.
Eveland replaces Fred Esposito, who had headed AVTEC for the past 17 years.
Before joining AVTEC last month, Eveland’s last position was as Director of Human Resources and Training at Copper River Seafoods in Kasilof. Before that, he was Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Anchorage, and prior to that, he worked as a consultant for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in Career and Technical Education/Pathways.
After graduating high school, Eveland got into construction, and began specializing in residential and light commercial construction and later in carpentry. He earned a BS in Industrial Education and Safety from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where he did a little drafting, architecture, auto mechanics, media, while minoring in safety. He also taught driver’s education, and handicap-drivers’ education, which he especially liked as he got to help those who had been dependent on other people take control of the wheel themselves.
There’s nothing so satisfying as watching students graduate and receive industry certification from a program at AVTEC, with their parents or their families visiting for the occasion, and know that there’s a 90-percent chance that they will find job in their field, and be able to return home to support their family and themselves, and earn enough to buy that truck or that home that they’ve been wanting, he said.
“Ben Eveland’s extensive background in career and technical education includes school leadership and building successful private sector partnerships,” said Dianne Blumer, the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, a state agency which works closely with AVTEC. “He helped develop the Mat-Su Career and Technical High School and served as its first principal.”
Professionals from business and industry taught all of the vocational-ed classes at the high school, and students would often graduate with two years of college credits, or certificates in skills that qualified them for jobs in the trades or set them along the path toward careers in building, engineering, nursing, pharmacology, and medical terminology, Eveland said. The school grew from 200 students to 450 over the four years he was there, and it had a lengthy waiting list of 150 more hoping to get in. He wishes there could be more high schools that could offer that level of vocational program.
Eveland’s greatest challenge at AVTEC will be to keep its programs current with the states’ emerging job markets, and preferably a step ahead of them. His passion is training or retraining people in the skills that are needed so that that those jobs can be filled by Alaskans. Many sectors, such as those that hire pipefitters, welders, construction workers, and even manual laborers, are experiencing a shortage of qualified workers, he said. Skilled workers also are needed for jobs involving engine room maintenance and management, diesel heavy, power plant maintenance, and refrigeration. Those in shipping and other maritime industries also are finding it more difficult to find the qualified workers that they need. For this, Eveland hopes to foster close relationships between AVTEC and the Alaska Division of Labor and Workforce Development and the AVTEC Board of Directors. He knows he can rely on AVTEC’s experienced faculty to keep an ear to the ground to changes or opportunities in their field. Eveland also foresees a balancing act emerging between encouraging growth of the institute’s existing programs, and assuring that the institute doesn’t grow beyond its ability to do its mission well.
AVTEC’s classes are practically full for the upcoming fall semester, with the exception of Refrigeration and Industrial Electricity classes. Eveland will be pushing to get more refrigeration students as that’s an area in which he believes there will be increasing job potential in Alaska.
AVTEC’s Maritime Training Center has already begun taking a leading role in training people to meet a new need- ice-navigation- using its sophisticated simulator programs. With the opening of the Arctic to global shipping, the Seward facility is becoming an important new resource for the shipping industry, Eveland said.
Eveland’s no stranger to Seward or to AVTEC faculty and local teachers. He spent 26 years (from 1981 when he arrived in Alaska until ’07) with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District as a CTE Instructor, Coordinator and Assistant Principal. While at Kenai High School he taught a variety of vocational classes, while at night he taught at Kenai Peninsula Community College and at Wildwood Correctional Center. He’s often visited Seward to go fishing, and has a history of working with some of the AVTEC’s faculty, and with faculty current and past at Seward High School too. He worked on some contracts for AVTEC, under former director Esposito, and AVTEC’s Deputy Director Richard Harrell, and expresses high regard for both men and their accomplishments with AVTEC.