Originally published in the Anchorage Press.

Shannon McLaughlin was planning on going to UAA to study nursing. Like most teenagers, she said she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. After she enrolled in the Alaska Railroad Tour Guide Training Program in 2012, she got a better idea.

“It’s crazy to sometimes say, but I really owe where I am with my field to the tour guide program… This job really opened the door to the tourism and hospitality industry to me. I knew no matter what I choose as my career, I wanted to be able to work directly with people and have the opportunity to travel, and that’s what I realized I could do when I was a tour guide,” McLaughlin said.

As a junior in high school, McLaughlin graduated from the tour guide program. A rigorous after school class, the program is offered to Anchorage high school juniors and seniors, through a partnership with the Anchorage School District and the Alaska Railroad, at the King Career Center every spring semester. The program has been running every year since 1980, save one year in 2010 when the Alaska Railroad cut the program for budget purposes.

Students spend nearly everyday after school learning all about Alaska, the tourism industry and how to work in a professional workplace.

“Not only are you learning resume building, interview, and customer service skills, but you are learning about an industry that can link you to other job opportunities around the world,” Robert Russell, manager of onboard services at the Alaska Railroad, said. “It is a great way to stick your foot in the door of the real world and make an easier transition into your future. [The students] become Alaska experts on flora, fauna, economy and geography. They gain Impeccable customer service skills. They become phenomenal public speakers and gain excellent job skills such as punctuality, dependability and communication.”

For students who don’t end up in the tourism industry, the program has benefits for students interested in rounding out their people skills.

“Benefits include not only learning about the state that is all around you, but learning about people and places all over the world that are coming to you from all directions. Experience with people and different situations is one trait you can utilize with any other job that comes your way in life,” Russell said.

“The skills and knowledge I learned from the tour guide class, and then continuing on as a tour guide on the Alaska Railroad have helped me in both my personal and professional life,” McLaughlin said. One of the biggest things I took away from this program was public speaking, a skill that many consider their greatest fears. I can’t even express how much this has helped me over the years with my jobs and in school.”

Teaching this program for the last 25 years is Mike Woods. He’s seen generations of tour guides over the years, and he says many of which have gone on to become leaders in Alaska’s travel industry.

“There’s many in the industry today that got their beginning in the tour guide program. We know it works. It’s the only program that brings them in at this age, and introduces them to the industry,” Woods said.

Upon successful completion of the program 10 students are chosen from the class to work for a summer on the Alaska Railroad as tour guides. For many of the students, this is their first job. After one summer, only a handful of students can come back as a second-year tour guide. However, due to union rules and budgets, students are only allowed to work for two summers on the Alaska Railroad as a tour guide. In the past, students often branch out into other departments at the Alaska Railroad, or even into supervisor positions after their second summer.

McLaughlin was chosen after completion of the class in 2012, and went on to work for the Alaska Railroad for three more summers before switching companies to Holland America to work as a tour director. Today, McLaughlin is studying hospitality management at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, a field she says she wouldn’t have found if it wasn’t for the Alaska Railroad Tour Guide Training Program.

Disclaimer: Victoria Petersen is a former student of the Alaska Railroad Tour Guide Training Program.

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