‘We’re reaching out for the same people’: Cruise towns scramble to get ready for shortened season

Ships docked in Juneau
Ships docked in Juneau
Updated: Jun. 3, 2021 at 6:12 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Businesses in Southeast Alaska cruise towns like Sitka spent a year hoping that the cruise ships would return and bring customers in mass this summer, but many weren’t sure if it was really going to happen. Now that Alaska will get a partial cruise season, they have a new problem: getting enough workers to operate.

Seasonal workers tend to be one of two types of people, according to businesses like Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures and the Sitka Bazaar. They’re usually either young people looking for work in the summer or retirees who have extra time during these months.

“Age doesn’t really make a difference as long as you’re older than 14,” said Chuck Trierschield, owner of the Sitka Bazaar.

It becomes more complicated when all the businesses are reaching out to similar people to get them to work. John Dunlap, general manager of Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, said companies inevitably end up reaching out to the same people while looking for employees.

Trierschield added that retail businesses like his face the problem of competition in wages. He said companies that pay more, like commercial and charter fishing companies, are more alluring to seasonal workers. Any business that has tips like food and beverage businesses are also heavy competitors for him to find employees.

There’s also the matter of training employees when they arrive to work. That’s particularly an issue for Dunlap, running a sea kayak tour company, which can be dangerous if the guide doesn’t know what they’re doing.

“There’s certain skills that you’ve got to have to lead sea kayaking trips that you need to be proficient at,” he said. “And some of that training has to start in like a swimming pool setting.”

While there is work to be done, it’s a shorter season, which means there’s less money to be made for those seasonal workers. The cost-benefit weighing makes the pool of workers smaller, according to Dunlap.

“If they’re coming from outside the state they always have to do the math,” he said. “‘What’s it gonna cost me to get to and from Alaska to this job, versus what I can make and is that worth while to me?’”

Dunlap said the company he works for is offering housing, but many others like Trierschield’s aren’t even though they’re offering bonuses for new employees.

While they both agree that these are much better problems to have than last summer’s lack of a cruise season, they know they still have a lot more to get through before they’re back to usual operations, hopefully in 2022.

“Well I’m over being worried or concerned. That was last year,” Trierschield said, “It’s so totally out of our control that we’ll just go with the flow and do the best job that we can.”

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