Donlin Gold looks to schools, workforce development for future employees

Welding students at Yuut Elinaurviat designed and fabricated a road grader that can be transported to villages in a shipping container. It could be used to grade remote roads for mining operations. (Photo by Krysti Shallenberger / KYUK)

Donlin Gold promised to hire local workers for its proposed gold mine. To fulfill that promise, the company knows that it has to start now — and it has to start young. Donlin is already investing in schools and programs in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in anticipation.

Desiree Teeluk pulls her bag filled with tools out from her locker at Yuut Elitnaurviat, a workforce development organization located in Bethel. She came from Kotlik, a village south of Norton Sound. Desiree has dreamed of being a carpenter since she was small.

“It’s just, like, in the blood. My dad was a carpenter and my biological dad is one too,” Teeluk said. 

She’s one of hundreds of students who have gone through Yuut Elitnaurviat or similar programs that train rural Alaskans for jobs at home.

Jeremy Osborne is the director of programs at Yuut Elitnaurviat. He also works as a part-time copy editor for KYUK. He’s confident that his students will be ready for a job at the Donlin mine.

“So if the Donlin project goes, which is something we’ve talked about with Donlin Gold for a number of years, we actually have the capacity to house 160 people, which is pretty darn good,” Osborne said. 

Donlin promised to prioritize shareholders from the two Native corporations that own the mineral rights and land for the mine. To do that, Donlin has to have a pipeline of shareholders already trained for the jobs at a mine that might not begin operating until years down the road. Donlin is already hiring for its drilling and exploration efforts, and it spends $1 million each year on community programs throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta like Yuut Elitnaurviat and Excel Alaska.

“Basically, what we do is we take a look at what jobs that are available in the region,” said Carol Wilson, executive director of Excel Alaska, another workforce training program that starts with students as young as seventh grade.

Excel tailors sessions to fit the skills that a student needs to get a job in their village. Teachers and community members refer a student to the program, and Excel gives them training for skills on local jobs until they graduate high school.

Donlin has already hired employees who have gone through Excel Alaska.

“They have already hired and have called back probably between eight and 10 of our students that they hired last year, or that they’d have put into work internships that are now being looked at to bring back on for their summer drilling program,” Wilson said. 

Donlin is preparing to hire more than 100 people for the final drilling program for its dam safety certification. Those jobs will only last a year, but Donlin also is playing the long game. They help fund scholarships from Calista Corporation and The Kuskokwim Corporation, which own the surface and mineral rights. Donlin also gives money to the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program or ANSEP.

Back at Yuut Elitnaurviat, Teeluk is helping build portable teacher housing that will be shipped to villages in the Lower Kuskokwim School District. When asked if she wants to work for Donlin, she shrugs and smiles.

“I guess so,” Teeluk says. 

Right now she has this semester, and one more class, before she can fulfill her dream of being a carpenter.

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