I begin this conversation hoping to stay a bit away from the political arenas....
I hear this a lot. Especially with Obama's decision concerning the Northern Seas. People want more jobs and they see the oil industry as a way to gain more job opportunities. They are willing to do anything for a job. A good paying stable job. Willing to risk natural resources, willing to risk the health of our greatest and healthiest food source. Some people are very verbal about how important these jobs are. Words filled with emotion spill from their mouths, in a weird mix of anger and helplessness. I can understand how hard it is to watch a loved one suffer because they have no job, watch their self esteem wither and then watch as job holding members of the family struggle to help them as much as possible. I know how many times a week someone calls to borrow money or gas or help. Jobs are important to this modern Inupiaq society, this is something that is accepted. But what does that mean?
I have a few thoughts though on this dilemma. And I have a feeling people are not seeing the issue at it's roots, and instead are concentrating on the very bright and fluffy plant above ground. Since it is very bright and fluffy.
First I wonder how many jobs did the oil industry already create on the North Slope? How many of our villagers benefit from their business? How many people young strong people hold permanent healthy happy jobs to support their families? Are these jobs in the villages? I do know a few people. Granted my sampling of the population is probably not the best sample, they are all around my age, with families. But I do know from talking with them that they are not happy. They leave the village and work for a few weeks, then come back to the village for a few weeks. They travel alot. They know everything about phone plans. They miss their youngest child's first steps. They look tired and haggard, and many find too much solace in drinking in the cities. It's not a life built for Inupiaq people, with Inupiaq souls. I know surprisingly few of these Inu-work-nomads. Less than I would think I would know if there were hundreds employed on the Oil Rez. And I am talking about the permanent jobs, with benefits and solid pay. The ones that last for infinite years and not short 2 month -2 years surveys or environmental studies. How many jobs at the Prudhoe Bay are held by North Slope residents permanently? How many of these jobs, if any, are actually in the villages themselves?
Second I wonder how many jobs in the villages are there? I always find it interesting that when people talk about needing jobs in the villages they seem to focus only on certain types of jobs. Such as physical labor intensive or temporary jobs. Why is it that as a people we automatically reduce our worth in the job market? Who decided to place a limit on what we are capable of? Why is it that we are blind to the jobs like teaching and management? Why can't we be the lawyer that comes to the village once a month and gets $24,000 for three days of paperwork? Or the vet tech? or the Computer guy? I always found it an odd and debilitating characteristic that Inupiaqs do not imagine themselves as being confident and capable and educated. I could imagine that if each village had two lawyers they would both be employed for the rest of their lives, and not only that but be a great asset to the community. And if you are in the field of accounting beware, you will be wooed and plied with massive amounts of money, especially if you live in a village.
Third I wonder what might be the real issue that is keeping villagers from getting jobs. I have a sneaking suspicion it has to do with education. With training. With qualifications. With thick white paper with golden seals stamped on them. And has nothing to do with the availability of the jobs.
I know you guys have heard me talk about education before, about how it's like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. But let's say that there are people in the villages that honestly want a job, and are willing to do pretty much anything to obtain it. Are willing to possibly risk their heritage for it. What is stopping them from picking a job in the village, that is not held by a villager already, and sacrificing two years time to gain that job?
I have a degree in Studio Art, a half degree in Marine Biology, and a half Masters in Education. I was not a perfect student. I found early on that my education would be based on enjoyability and availability, which oddly enough included a massive amount of courses in tai chi and philosophy, and I got kicked out of college after my first year for bad attendance and thus failing grades. My record is peppered with F's and D's. In the Lower 48 I'm not very valuable as a future employee. I could probably get my old job at a vet hospital cleaning out dog poo if I really needed it. But here in rural Alaska on the North Slope I am GOLD.
Why? Because .....eventually....I did finish college and got a degree. I got my act together and got my GPA up. I worked my butt off and found ways to be good at stuff. College is very good for a few things: it teaches you about self motivation and commitment to a task for a set period of time, It fills your head with basic knowledge and skills like computer skills/english/math/ and making strangers understand your ideas just by you talking, it teaches you how to be self reliant if need be with research skills and confidence. I can't remember half ...or even a quarter...of what I learned in college, but I do contain pathways and basics. And this is what people see and hear when I tell them I have a degree. I have been offered as many jobs in as many villages as you can imagine, everything from political seats to secretaries, to managers, to grant organizers. Many of those jobs I do not have ANY experience in, but they know that because I hold a degree I would at least know where to start, that the process of education has wrought in me the western abilities needed to deal with the western tasks.
Add to this issue the heartbreaking numbers of village kids graduating from high school on the North Slope, something like 50% a year, and the numbers of people capable of qualifying for jobs is cut even further. Pushing them further and further away from future employment. How many jobs do you know do not require a high school degree at the very least?
So if people are willing to risk so much for jobs, why aren't they willing to take a few years to get a degree and secure a good stable job? What is really going on? And what has been sacrificed in this dilemma, and what WILL be sacrificed in the future?
I do commend the efforts of a few organizations and individuals that are valiantly trying to battle this dark and mostly invisible beast. But they do so with very little financial support and they also fight daily for every single step they take in the right direction. And most times they do not have the support of the People. But in their eyes I see hope. Hope fueled by a pride in their heritage and belief in the abilities of our People. Which I think in the end, is what is missing in the development plans of the 23 oil companies sitting on the North Slope. They do not see an Inupiaq child and plan on how they will keep him employed and happy and healthy for 50 years.