Back to the Office: Where are the workers?

Jobs(Associated Press)
Published: Aug. 18, 2021 at 4:18 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating.

In Alaska alone, it’s claimed the lives of over 400 individuals, not to mention the staggering number who have been hospitalized and the untold number of those that will suffer long-haul symptoms or complications.

After the direct loss of life and health repercussions, the economic toll has also been striking. According to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, in 2019 Alaska saw an annual average of 330,000 total nonfarm jobs. That number plummeted by more than 40,000 during the pandemic, with the first month of 2021 showing just 289,300 total nonfarm jobs for the month of January.

Through vaccine implementation and other mitigation efforts, it looked as though the state was set to pull out of that jobs slide by mid-summer. In June, Alaska saw 318,800 nonfarm jobs, an increase of 29,500.

The surging COVID-19 delta variant is now starting to become a focus of concern, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even as some economic woes have continued to be problematic.

“I’m short-staffed at my front desk, I’m short-staffed in housekeeping, I am short-staffed in the kitchen,” says Angela Duncan, manager of the Breeze Inn in Seward.

That need for employees, especially in the hospitality industry, has been echoed by business owners across the state.

In June 2019, the leisure and hospitality industry employed 42,800 people in the state. This past June that number was still down at 31,500, despite larger returns to pre-pandemic numbers in other sectors.

Ralph Townsend, the director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, believes a number of factors are at play.

“Some of the people that lost jobs are not going to take the jobs that are available right now, if you’re an oil and gas worker I suspect you’re not going to take a job in the restaurant business,” Townsend said.

Dr. Tamika Ledbetter, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, sees other issues that add to the problem.

“Childcare is a factor, it’s a very real issue for many families,” said Ledbetter.

In a perfect storm of sorts, even the state’s aging population is contributing to the difficulty of staffing back up in some industries.

“If you were in your 60′s, you lost your job, what did you probably do? You decided it was time to retire,” said Townsend.

“Ultimately there are people that are making different life choices, there’s a change in perspective having been home for a year,” said Ledbetter.

While the worker shortage in some industries may prove tough for employers, for employees it can be beneficial.

“This is a workers market and this is the opportunity to take advantage of some of those incentives that hiring managers are offering,” said Ledbetter.

Moving forward, as the state goes about the business of recovery and as individuals evaluate their best options, both groups need to be aware of how the job sector is changing.

“I think all of these other forces are driving a readjustment in our labor market,” said Ledbetter.

Demographic shifts, a smaller workforce and a tighter labor market are all issues that will impact the Alaskan economy moving forward and are all factors that will in part dictate the speed at which the economy returns to a more stable norm.

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