FAIRBANKS — On June 5, a dozen Alaskans walked across the small cafeteria in the newly constructed residential building at the Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center and received a firm handshake from Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Gerry Andrews.

The small graduation ceremony celebrated the 12 students’ completion of the Alaska Construction Academy — its first graduating class.

For the 12 Alaskans crossing the makeshift stage, the moment marked a major step forward in their lives. For Mallott, and the state of Alaska, the moment also represented a major step forward in the post-high school options available to Alaskans. For Andrews, the moment seemed to represent the complete pride he had in the men and women whose hands he was shaking.

As each of the 12 came forward, Andrews — a tall man with rough laborer’s hands and a wide, easy smile — regaled the crowd with a story about the student receiving his or her diploma.

The program lasts two weeks, but hearing the pride and affection in Andrews’ voice and seeing the number of certifications now on each student’s resumé, one could be forgiven for thinking the program lasts much longer.

By the time students complete the construction academy, they have obtained first aid and CPR certifications, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10-hour card, a forklift operator card and two separate certifications from the National Center for Construction Education and Research — an industry-standard accrediting body.

Many of the students plan to continue their eduction and attend university construction management programs. According to Andrews, with the work completed through the construction academy, each of the students is positioned to jump directly into an apprenticeship program or a high-wage job in construction.

As a series of training opportunities for high school students, the Alaska Construction Academy has existed for the last few years. Until 2015, however, the program had no real capstone class. In an attempt to fill anticipated future need for heavy equipment operators and maintenance technicians.

The 12 students participating in the capstone class came from three school districts in Alaska: the Lake and Peninsula Borough School District, the Kuspuk School District and the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

During their two-week stay at the Pipeline Training Center, the students spent every hour of each day either at the center or working in the field. Andrews would wake the students for their first class at 7 a.m. each day. Following class, the group would go out to work until 5 p.m., after which they would have a short dinner before heading back out to study from 6-9 p.m.

Each of the students in the academy’s first graduating class was accepted based on a demonstrated special interest in construction careers. Their interest was evident from day one, according to Andrews. He said the students maintained their work ethic throughout the two-week program, unfailingly.

“I never even had one kid give me an ounce of attitude,” he said.

Daniel Domke, director of career and technical education for the Fairbanks School District, said the construction academy fills an important gap in the state’s education system.

“The school district could never replicate this,” Domke said.

Since taking over as director of CTE for the district one year ago, Domke has emphasized the importance of public private partnerships, as well as state and local partnerships. The Alaska Construction Academy has provided the intersection of both, and for 12 Alaskans it has provided a unique learning opportunity.

For the state, the program’s success is one small step. For 12 students from Fairbanks, Anaik and King Salmon, it provided one giant leap.

Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: