During her senior year at Homer High School, Sunny Puterbaugh lacked a plan for the future.
“I genuinely had no idea,” Puterbaugh said of her confusion.
Thanks to Homer High School’s FOL, Focus on Learning, program, insightful teachers, and the willingness of a local business owner, she found an answer.
Monica Stockburger, a Homer High teacher, told Puterbaugh about FOL sessions being taught by members of the Homer Marine Trades Association. Puterbaugh began attending the 40-minute, once a week sessions and, during a class taught by Mark Zeiset, owner of South Central Radar, her future began taking shape.
“I went up and shook his hand and introduced myself,” said Puterbaugh, her interest in electronics piqued by Zeiset’s presentation.
Stockburger then arranged for Puterbaugh to attend a more in-depth session taught by Zeiset at Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College, University of Alaska Anchorage. When that class ended, Puterbaugh asked Zeiset for a job.
“What made me realize how serious she was was that she said she’d be willing to sweep floors, clean the shop or whatever she had to do to get her foot in the door,” said Zeiset.
His first requirement was for Puterbaugh to graduate. Lacking the necessary credits to graduate that year, she switched to Plan B: getting a GED, a task she achieved, with honors, in seven days, according to Stockburger.
“Those were the things that spoke to me that, yeah, she wanted a job,” said Zeiset.
At South Central Radar, Puterbaugh learned basic work skills such as answering the phone and greeting customers. She assisted Zeiset when he installed radios, provided a second pair of hands when wires needed pulling and learned to solder.
“Her biggest skill was learning how to test and troubleshoot VHF marine radios and program radios,” said Zeiset. “And she did sweep floors and take out the trash and all the basic stuff at the shop.”
Similarly, sweeping floors is how Zeiset started his own professional journey. Originally from Pennsylvania, he attended a Bible college for a year after graduating from high school and then landed an entry-level construction job, working in the shop, sweeping floors. A road trip to Alaska and the offer of employment in the construction industry resulted in a move to Anchorage.
“Then I was able to get hired by an electrical outfit. I didn’t have the schooling or the education, but I had several years of construction background so I was able to get hired,” he said of accepting an opportunity that opened the door for valuable training.
While in Anchorage, Zeiset met and married Laura Porter of Homer. During a visit to Homer in the spring of 2012, he saw that South Central Radar was for sale. Before year’s end, the Zeisets had bought the business and, along with their two children, moved to Homer. Zeiset became active with the Homer Marine Trades Association and, in 2015, began teaching FOL students about South Central Radar’s role in Homer’s marine trades.
Eric Engebretsen, general manager of the family-owned Bay Welding, was born and raised in Homer and is part of a commercial fishing family. After high school, he relocated to Arizona, but realized Alaska offered greater earning potential.
“I wanted to move back to Homer and the fact that there was a great career opportunity in a growing Homer business was the reason I moved back,” he said.
Engebretsen enrolled in KBC classes that pertained to his job at Bay Welding and made it possible for him to advance. He has participated in Homer High’s FOL as an employer, teaching about boat building and design. Bay Welding also sponsors the school’s welding class.
“The FOL program is a benefit to exposing students to hands-on ways to get involved in local businesses and opportunities,” Engebretsen said. “More specifically, the welding program is significantly beneficial to our business because we get to see who has natural talent and hire them when the opportunity arises.”
Reba Temple coordinates FOL following Stockburger’s retirement at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. Temple grew up fishing with her dad, has her own Bristol Bay fishing boat, graduated from Homer High in 2008, and has taught math at HHS for four years.
“So many kids hear the ‘go to college’ track, but there are jobs that aren’t necessarily about going to college. Instead, they are about going to a trade school or, like Sunny (Puterbaugh), an apprenticeship-type program,” said Temple.
FOL offers an academic track for students needing help in specific areas and provides opportunities to participate in activities such as soccer, swimming and drawing. A “nuts and bolts” series in the fall brings in local business professionals who offer basic career information.
“The kids like to hear from someone who isn’t a teacher,” said Temple
During the spring FOL sessions, marine trades representatives explain the industry’s many facets and employment opportunities.
“When you go to a classroom and build these relationships and see these kids growing up through school, you begin to identify the ones that have a lot of potential,” said Don Lane, owner and captain of the F/V Predator and former commissioner of the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
Putting the FOL roster together for the current school year, Temple encouraged participation by the local business community.
“There’s a lot of really good kids at the high school that would be great future employees,” she said. “This is a good way to meet and encourage them to get trained.”
Puterbaugh said working at South Central Radar “was my first step toward a career. I made connections and met people. I wasn’t aware of just how big and important Homer is to Alaska’s marine industry.”
For Zeiset, the time spent training Puterbaugh was “worth it. It taught me a lot.”
Would he recommend it to other business owners?
“Definitely,” he said. “And the worst case is you get someone to sweep floors.”
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.