The University of Alaska Anchorage’s College of Business and Public Policy is located inside Rasmuson Hall.

Eric Terry

Planning for the Future

What gets workers farther: traditional degrees or the school of life?

By Samantha Davenport


here is an array of degrees training workers for Alaska’s business community. From business administration to human resources, each individual is an important piece of the whole.

Paula Bradison is the owner and managing director of staffing agency Alaska Executive Search. She obtained her associate’s degree in small business administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and is a fourth generation Alaskan business owner.

While the company recruits some potential employees from the Lower 48, the majority of individuals who use Alaska Executive Search’s services are from Alaska, ranging from Bethel to Nome to Kotzebue.

Bradison says that the top three positions in high demand in Alaska are accounting, IT services, and human resources. Having a degree is important in those fields.

Education and Work Balance

“I think a four-year degree is very helpful to especially the sort of younger population. That’s a fine balance with actual practical experience… In accounting, IT—those kind of things—the degrees and the certifications are absolute. We can’t get past go without those,” Bradison says.

Bradison encourages students interested in accounting, IT, and human resources to obtain a degree of some kind, as does Sander Schijvens, president and CEO of Wostmann Associates.

Wostmann Associates is an IT consulting business that was founded in 1984 with the ultimate goal of improving IT in Alaska through technical innovation. Its clients are primarily state and federal agencies, but the company also works with local government agencies and private businesses.

IT is a unique degree, Schijvens says, since people couldn’t major it in thirty years ago. People who have been in the industry for a long time might not have a degree, but today individuals working in or entering the IT field usually have a degree or certificate of some kind.

Schijvens says that their clients oftentimes request individuals who have years of experience in computer science as well as a degree.

“In essence, for us, 80 percent of the work we do, having a computer science bachelor’s degree is pretty much the standard,” Schijvens says.

Schijvens went to school in Europe and earned the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in business engineering. He says that the most valuable degree to his business is computer science, but as the chair for the University of Alaska Southeast Advisory Council, education in any field is valuable.

“I absolutely believe in [the] university system, big time. I think having an associate’s or bachelor’s degree is [an] absolutely fantastic value for people’s broader perspective and therefore for businesses,” Schijvens says.

Bradison and Schijvens encourage those entering the workforce to obtain a degree in higher education—an important part of a resume that attracts employers. But it’s not the only part of the equation. In fact, Terry Nelson, graduate programs director for the College of Business and Public Policy (CBPP) at UAA, recently published a paper that highlighted the importance for a job candidate to have universal skills like good communication, the ability to be a team player, problem solving and decision making, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and leader­ship.

James Wileman agrees education is important, but it’s not everything. As the president and CEO of Credit Union 1, which has been in business since 1952, Wileman oversees nearly 400 people at thirteen regular branches in Alaska.

“Degrees demonstrate a desire to learn, and they also demonstrate the ability to finish a long term commitment. But degrees are not the end-all, be-all,” Wileman says. “I think it’s great when people have a degree, especially if they have a passion for a particular field and they want to pursue a career in that field of study. What is also valuable is the ability to learn in the most traditional of all schools: the school of hard knocks, where the lessons learned have real impact and mean just as much, if not more, than the classroom.”

Wileman obtained an associate of arts degree from the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka campus and a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. He later went on to obtain a diploma from Western CUNA Management School.

“An MBA comes into play especially when you’re wanting… upper mobility within an organization and [want] to become a leader.”

—Terry NelsonGraduate Programs Director UAA College of Business and Public Policy

UA Statewide

Though in different parts of the state, Bradison and Wileman both earned degrees in the University of Alaska (UA) system, as did Mary Pete, who graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a bachelor’s in anthropology and master’s in cultural anthropology. She is the dean of the College of Rural and Community Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim Campus in Bethel. Pete describes her current role as halftime dean and halftime director.

Pete says there are around 540 to 570 students at the Kuskokwim Campus. The majority, about 500, are distance students that go to school part-time because they are also working part-time or full-time.

“Often, I don’t see them until they walk across the stage to graduate,” Pete says.

It is rare for a student to take all classes off-campus. A more typical schedule is comprised of a mix of in-person and online classes.

“This allows them to keep going on with their lives in the villages and raise their families and work and engage in subsistence activities and be there for significant family events,” Pete says.

The most popular degree out of the Bethel campus is an associate of arts degree, according to Pete.

At the Kuskokwim campus, students can obtain a certificate in applied business management, information technology, or rural human services, to name a few. They can also earn an associate of arts degree or an associate of applied science degree.

While students can obtain a degree in the UA system throughout rural Alaska, the UAA campus boasts the largest population of students, approximately 14,308, according to data from 2017. At UAA, students can earn a plethora of degrees, including an associate degree of applied science and a bachelor’s in business administration.

UAA’s MBA program is in the middle of transitioning from a face-to-face program to a hybrid program. Half of the classes will be conducted in person and the other half will be offered online. Nelson believes that this format will align with working professionals’ busy schedules. The CBPP has also launched a master’s degree program for global supply chain management offered completely online.

These types of programs provide in-class interactions with fellow students and local leaders, which can be good networking opportunities for the working student.

“An MBA comes into play especially when you’re wanting… upper mobility within an organization and [want] to become a leader,” Nelson says.

Students can obtain a degree in the UA System throughout Alaska, including Fairbanks and Southeast; UA’s Anchorage campus has the highest population of students at approximately 14,308.

Eric Terry

Passion Plays a Part

Nelson is the Graduate Programs director for the College of Business and Public Policy (CBPP) at UAA and an associate professor. She received her undergraduate degree and MBA from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with an emphasis in marketing and business. She received her PhD in management from the University of Memphis.

Christina McDowell is an interim associate dean of accreditation and assessment and an associate professor in the CBPP who received her undergraduate degree in communication with an emphasis on advertising and public relations, as well as a business certificate. She received her master’s in corporate communication. Her PhD is in rhetoric with an emphasis on interpersonal/organizational communication and communication ethics from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Both women have been at UAA for five years, and while Nelson and McDowell highly value education in their lives, they both agree that it’s difficult to say what level of degree is important in a general sense.

“The importance of a degree, it depends on the individual, and [the decision] should be tailored [to] not whether somebody should say, ‘Having a degree is important’; it’s about personal attainment and the goals that you want to set forth. So, maybe it is going for a four-year degree, maybe it’s a two-year degree. Maybe it’s a PhD, maybe it’s a master’s, maybe it’s going into a trade, and that’s all okay. When it comes to schooling and saying, ‘How important is it to have a degree?’ I think it really needs to be a reflection of the self,” McDowell says.

Nelson agrees.

“Whatever someone does, they need to be passionate about it to be successful. That’s my opinion. I found my passion in teaching. I have worked for two Fortune 500 companies, I was a senior VP, but it wasn’t until I started teaching at the college level that I—there’s a passion that I didn’t have for those other positions,” Nelson says.

The goal of CBPP’s new Dean Karen Markel is to connect the college to the Alaska community, giving students more opportunities, including working on real-­world community projects. In her undergraduate classes, McDowell incorporates community engagement projects, providing students the chance to work with real clients. Nelson brings in community leaders to help solve real world problems, engaging in community and starting a dialogue. She hopes to incorporate more of an Alaska component into the MBA program.

Education is important, but so is how one gains experience after graduation. Bradison says that individuals just entering the workforce are typically really driven to find their dream job, which can translate to “job hopping.” She recommends staying at a job for at least two years.

“When you see somebody job hopping, that makes you a little bit leery… if you want to job hop, why don’t you come on board as a temp and work three to six months at any given job, and you can try five or six different places out until you really find the one that’s a great fit,” Bradison says. “Then, you can go back and reapply at that particular employer, because you know that’s the place that you want to work.”

Ultimately, Schijvens says the best job is the one someone can be passionate about.

“You find work in the field that you’re happy in. And if it doesn’t excite you, keep looking,” Schijvens says.