Forest Service seeks Alaska workers amid national labor shortage

A U.S. Forest Service crew
A U.S. Forest Service timber crew on Kosciusko Island (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

The U.S. Forest Service is seeking new recruits nationwide, with extra focus on filling positions in Alaska. But recruiters say economic conditions are making it hard for them to recruit and retain employees who come from out of state. Now, the agency is turning its attention to the local workforce.

America is in the grip of a widespread labor shortage. According to the latest data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are over 10 million job openings in the U.S. — but only 5.7 million unemployed workers. The U.S. Forest Service has not been spared from the shortage. And recruiters say it’s especially hard to bring people to Alaska.

Toby Bakos is a wildlife biologist for the Petersburg Forest Service District. He helped set up for a local hiring event on March 2. He said it’s part of the biggest hiring frenzy he’s seen in his decades-long career with the Forest Service.

“This is super-rare,” Bakos said. “I don’t remember a single other time when we’ve hired so many permanent positions at one moment in time.”

The Petersburg District is advertising 20 temporary positions as well as six permanent positions. Fifteen of those will open within the next two weeks.

Petersburg District Ranger Ray Born said he hopes the new hiring initiative will help his team make up for years of attrition. His district saw a wave of retirements during the pandemic. Born said the Petersburg Forest Service District is also flush with funding for new projects in the Tongass National Forest. However, those projects require more staff.

“A bunch of different laws got passed and over the last couple of years, and we got increased funding for projects,” Born said. “So we need more people.”

Tiffany Christiansen is an administrative support assistant for the Forest Service. She said the agency isn’t just looking for anybody — they’re specifically seeking out workers with strong ties to the area. Christiansen said hands-on experience living and working in the Tongass National Forest is valuable to the agency — even more valuable than certain academic credentials.

“Someone who has local knowledge has a leg up on someone who’s never been to Alaska,” Christiansen said. “In other words — maybe they haven’t gone and studied these particular sciences in a college down south, but they’ve lived in and grown up in it or lived in it.”

Jason Steele is a Forest Service recruitment specialist. He’s not originally from Alaska, but he recognizes the importance of hiring people who know the area best.

“I could not have gone into Alaska and hit the ground running in these positions, because I don’t know about these things,” Steele said. “In the local community, people do know all about bear habitat and how you would safely work in bear-populated areas in Southeast Alaska.”

But there are also practical reasons for why the Forest Service is trying to source people locally. Born said locals are also better equipped to stay — especially in the current climate of economic hardship.

“We bring people in and they’re like, ‘You mean I can’t drive to my next town?’” Born said. “Some people that’s just not ready for that Alaska adventure.”

Born said Alaska’s remoteness deters potential hires from taking the leap. Especially in the Southeast, where people have to take planes and boats to access the outside world.

However, Born said one of the worst obstacles to hiring people from Outside is Petersburg’s housing market.  Petersburg has struggled with a housing shortage for decades. That lack of housing is already making it difficult for local government offices like the Petersburg School District to bring in workers from out of town.

Born said the Petersburg Ranger District expects up to 40 new workers this year — but they only have 36 beds in their bunkhouse. Compounding that, there’s no space in the bunkhouse for the families they might bring with them. He’s working with local realtors to try and ease the pressure — but that’s why, he said, it makes sense to hire people who are already settled in the area.

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