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As Director of Employee Services and Community Relations, Johnson fosters post-secondary education, economic and community growth in rural Alaska.

By Hilary Reeves

Cheryl “Ducky” Johnson grew up in Nome, a city of fewer than 4,000 people on western Alaska’s Bering Sea. Now the Director of Employee Services and Community Relations for Northern Air Cargo (NAC) in Anchorage, Johnson counts among her duties making sure the companies community relations and charitable giving are responsive to the needs of the Native communities she knows well.

Johnson smiles in NAC's Nome office.
A Native Alaskan, Johnson grew up in Nome and has worked for NAC since 2007.

“I’m both Inupiaq and Yupik – a quarter each,” she explained. “My mom’s side of the family is from the Nome region – Inupiaq territory – and my dad’s side of the family is from the Bethel area, which is Yupik territory.”

Johnson graduated from high school in Nome. The community is accessible only by air, and the aviation industry plays an important role in the local economy. After graduation, Johnson enrolled in the University of Alaska in Anchorage, majoring in Aviation Management.

“I worked at a couple of different airlines in Nome in high school, as a ticket agent and in various other customer-service positions,” she said. “I just really enjoyed the industry.”

NAC first hired Johnson in 2007 to fill a temporary summer position while she was still in college; she manned the ticket counter on behalf of Frontier Airlines.

“Several years ago, NAC was contracted to provide ticket counter and ground support services to passengers flying American Airlines, JetBlue, Frontier, and others,” she said. “After college, I did another summer on the Frontier ticket counter. When summer ended, I transferred to a full-time job at Northern Air Maintenance Services (NAMS) in the Records Department. That only lasted a couple of months.” Johnson transferred into the role of NAC Recruiter in November of 2008, and has been in the Human Resources Department ever since.

“After about four years as a Recruiter, I was seeking new challenges,” she said.

She dove headfirst into Community Relations in 2012.

“We do a lot to show the communities we service that NAC is here for them,” she said. “Each year, we give a scholarship to one graduating senior in each community that we fly to, and ship up leis from Hawaii to give to each graduating senior. This month, we’re hosting an annual Fish Derby in Unalakleet. We host other customer appreciation events in many of our stations, including Bethel, Nome, and Barrow. And we participate as a sponsor of larger events, such as the Iditarod, the Kuskokwim 300, the Kobuk 440, and the Iron Dog,” an off-road snowmobile race across Alaska. “We just find ways to support what community activities are already going on in these areas.”

In addition to community-building activities, Johnson said the company remains poised and ready to assist in times of crisis.

“A couple of years ago, one of the schools in Bethel caught fire and boarding school students were displaced,” she said. “NAC immediately jumped in with a donation to replace those students’ basic needs, as well as donated the shipping of those items to Bethel. This summer, we got a call from the Alaska SeaLife Center about an abandoned baby walrus that needed to get from Nome to Anchorage, then onto Seward. NAC jumped right in to transport this protected species.”

Johnson said that while a good portion of the company’s focus on training and recruitment is directed in and around Anchorage, the company remains committed to the people served by its rural stations. NAC works with many native corporations, and local schools and colleges to get word out about new job and training opportunities.

“When I explain to new hires that I do both human resources and community relations, I love highlighting the impact we have on rural Alaska,” she said. “NAC helps keep Alaska living and thriving. We serve many rural communities, and we make sure our dollars support the communities we serve. We’ve found that a few hundred dollars here in Anchorage has a much greater impact in a very rural area. We might not have a business office in every hub or destination in the state, but people know NAC, and we make sure we spread out that love.”

Last year, Johnson took on an additional role to assist with charitable giving for Saltchuk Resources, NAC’s parent company. She works with the presidents and general managers of Alaska-based Saltchuk companies to enact one-time or multi-year commitments to support post-secondary education and youth development. This year, Saltchuk’s regional giving to Alaska is just over $270,000.

A group of students pose with Johnson in front of a NAC plane.
Students visited NAC during their stopover in Anchorage.

It started with Johnson helping to develop a plan to support rural education and training. This plan started with a partnership with Northwestern Alaska Career and Technical Center (NACTEC) in Nome. NACTEC supports the Bering Straight region by assisting local youth in obtaining skills they can apply in the workforce. The Saltchuk-funded program provides $20,000 per year for three years so students can travel from their villages to Seward to attend AVTEC, Alaska’s Institute of Technology. To build on this program, NAC brought these same high school students to NAC in Anchorage for a tour of their airplane, and cargo operations.

“For some of these students, just getting a driver’s license can be logistically difficult,” Johnson explained. “We want them to understand the importance of having a valid driver’s license, and a good driving record. We help them understand that attending a school like AVTEC can help set them up for a lifelong career at TOTE, Carlile, NAC or other Saltchuk operating companies.”

Johnson grew up the youngest of three siblings.

“I knew at a very young age that my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college, and that if I was going to succeed, I was going to have to make it happen, “ she said.

Johnson graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and aggressively pursued scholarships. She was a resident advisor, and never took out loans.

Johnson smiles at the top of the stairs leading to a NAC plane, hood up in the rain and safety vest on.“Within my immediate family, I was the first to get a college degree. I took an ‘Introduction to Human Resources’ class in college and I had an epiphany. I knew from that class that I wanted to get into the HR field.”

A self-described “crafty” person, Johnson said she has a passion for knitting, sewing, subsisting, culinary exploration, and learning more about Inupiaq and Yupik traditions.

“I took two weeks off (last month) and spent time with family putting away fish, and canning fish and berries,” she laughed. “We made 35 jars of jam just to make room in the freezer for fish.”

Her other passion is to travel – her favorite places include Hawaii, Mexico – and of course, rural Alaska.