Report says Alaska’s labor shortage isn’t going away, and employers need to do more to retain workers

Two people in hardhats and safety vests dig a trench.
Construction in Downtown Anchorage. State economist Dan Robinson says skilled trade workers will be in high demand in Alaska for at least a decade. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska has a historically high rate of job openings. It’s part of a national trend, but made more pronounced by the state’s declining population. That’s according to a new state report, which concludes that this recent dynamic makes worker retention both more difficult and more important. Wages are obviously important in retaining workers, but so are things like company culture and a sense of purpose, the report suggests

Economist Dan Robinson heads the state’s labor research department and authored the report. He said Alaska employers need to accept that these constraints are the new reality, and they must take steps to become more attractive workplaces.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dan Robinson: If you’re a good employer, you will be, I think, quicker to say, “What else can we do to make people want to stay?” One of the reasons we tried to reinforce the idea of part of this being demographic is so that employers don’t just think they can wait this out. That in a few more months, the chaos created by the pandemic will continue to ease and we’ll be back to how we were before. We can recruit the same way we always did. We can treat our workers the same way we always did. I think good employers will – their advantage they came into this with will grow. People will want to work there and people will know that they have new opportunities that they maybe didn’t have before to find a good employer, if they’re unsatisfied with their current employer.

Michael Fanelli: Anchorage has a new Amazon warehouse coming to it, I’m sure you’re aware of, do you think that the $20 an hour they’re offering is attractive enough for our market?

DR: It’s not so high a salary that it’s going to be easy to find those workers. It is pretty high. So, hard to say; I don’t know. The nature of the work will be important. And then people’s perception – and I have no idea what people’s perception, especially Alaskans and people from Anchorage, in particular is. How desirable would it be to work for Amazon? For some people it might be great, for some people they might have opposite feelings. I don’t know. To me, though, that will make a difference in how hard it is for them to find those workers.

MF: So Anchorage [School District] is implementing a new career pathways program, where they’re offering more technical trade training. Do you think something like that could help fill the worker shortage, if you’re training more people to become skilled workers when they’re young? 

DR: Yeah for sure, the training component. I mean, we talk about in the article, that there’s an imbalance in the numbers. In addition to that, you’ve got to have people with the skills that employers are looking for. Historically, there have been big projects in rural Alaska over a finite period. But there’s a whole lot of money coming our way from the Infrastructure Act and from broadband. Even aside from that, resource development, mining, in particular, there’s a lot of potential as we make the shift to some of the alternative energy sources that require some of what Alaska has. So if you’re a heavy equipment operator, for example, or an electrician or a welder, some of those occupations that aren’t college track, necessarily, but unusually now, that work will be especially valuable. There’s just a higher need than normal right now. And it’s not likely to go away for at least a decade.

MF: One thing that I was thinking as I was reading through this is, with this being a national trend, do you expect this to sort of accelerate the use of automation?

DR:  I do. And it will also kind of shine a brighter light on what human brains and bodies are uniquely able to do. Think of ice road trucking, for example. It’s one thing to have driverless trucks if you’re in flat Florida. It’s another thing to have driverless trucks on Alaska road conditions. But I do think that even aside from AI and automation and things like that, businesses may have to adjust their business model so they operate with fewer people. So restaurants we’ve probably seen some of that, whether they leave some tables empty or whatever. But for sure, if you can’t find human bodies the way we used to, well, what are the other options?

Michael Fanelli reported on economics and hosted the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. 

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