Alaska labor forecast calls for continuing shortages as Boomers age

Downtown Anchorage, with water in the foreground and mountains behind.
Downtown Anchorage photographed from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail on Saturday, August 19, 2023. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

The large number of unfilled jobs in Alaska is not just about the pandemic, the “Great Resignation,” or the disenchantment of Gen Z with traditional work roles.

New data from the Alaska Department of Labor suggest that it’s also about demographics, and that it’s not going to turn around anytime soon.

Finding workers in Alaska these days is tough. That’s because there are roughly two jobs open for everyone looking for work. This is 180 degrees from the historic job market in the early 2000s, where there were just over two job-seekers for every available job.

It all came to a head over the last couple of years, and there was a constant refrain: The Great Resignation.

Many analysts attributed the Great Resignation to a reset of sorts, a change in attitudes toward work. So many people lost jobs during the pandemic, they just weren’t ready to go back to their old unfulfilling work, we were told.

But something had started to change even before the pandemic, and it’s described in the latest issue of the Alaska Department of Labor’s Economic Trends. All across the country, job openings had begun to rise, and labor shortages were occurring because Baby Boomers were aging out of the workforce. Demographers had seen it coming for a long time; that it happened in the middle of the first global pandemic in a century was coincidence.

State labor economist Dan Robinson, who authored the October issue, writes: “The pandemic accelerated the imbalance by prompting many older workers to retire earlier than they otherwise would have.”

“The three examples that come to mind to me, most obviously, would be nurses, teachers, and flight attendants,” Robinson said in an interview. “I think how miserable some of that work became during COVID.”

And Robinson also makes another critical point: Although some economic trends are leveling out in the aftermath of the pandemic, this demographic trend likely won’t. 

“I think employers are going to have to work hard to hire and retain until the Baby Boomers are all the way aged-out and we find some new stability,” Robinson said. “And that might mean some companies figuring out how to do the same business they used to do with fewer people.”

So now the question is, once an employer has found workers, how do you keep them? The October issue of Trends also looks at job turnover, and the data there are also telling. For example, although wages matter in retaining employees, wages aren’t everything. Some occupations with high compensation, like cell tower installers or highway maintenance workers, show exceptionally high rates of turnover, while other lower-paid occupations like bicycle mechanics and bartenders tend to hold onto workers. The data don’t account for tips, which likely throw bartenders into a higher earning tier than bike mechanics, but there is overlap in less quantifiable ways, like creativity and social interaction, and a dedication to a craft or purpose.

And what sends workers away from an employer? Sometimes it’s a desire to change jobs, or do the same job for someone else at higher pay. Alaska doesn’t have hard data in this area, but Robinson cites a national study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which concluded that a toxic work culture was three times more likely to contribute to attrition than compensation. He writes, “Some of the attributes of a toxic culture include disrespectful treatment and unethical behavior.”

“It begs the question what workplace toxicity means,” said Robinson. “I was doing a presentation in Anchorage last week, and I mentioned that and – I swear – a tenth of the people in the audience were vigorously nodding.”

All of these factors are probably in play in the two occupations in Alaska with the highest and lowest rates of turnover. At the top of the list, with an annual turnover rate of 84%, are fast food cooks who earn an average of $16 an hour. And at the bottom, with a turnover rate of just 8%, and an hourly wage of about $50 an hour, are architects.

Previous articleOutdoor Explorer: Creating an outdoor clothing company in Alaska
Next article‘They have a loyalty’: AFN photos capture generations of Alaska Natives’ military service