Alaska faces skilled-worker shortage

Union apprentices training to build their carpentry skills in this part of Alaska have a nickname for more seasoned co-workers they meet on job sites. "We call them the 'Geriatric Crew,' " says Clint Meyer, one of the 20- and 30-somethings working out of a union- operated training center in south Anchorage.

It's an apt description. While Alaska's economy has grown – and its construction business has blossomed – over the last two decades, the pool of skilled construction laborers has not. Now, so many tradesmen are nearing retirement age that the state is struggling simply to replace them. If building takes off, Alaska could face a worker shortfall similar to the 1970s when Americans from the Lower 48 flocked here to take advantage of high-paying jobs.

There's just one problem: Alaska's pay premium has all but disappeared in the past decade.

"We've become closer to average than we used to be," says Neal Fried, a state labor economist. Attractive jobs are plentiful elsewhere. "Look at Seattle. We used to get our workers from there. Now some here go there."

The graying skilled labor force is a national issue, economists say, but it is accentuated in Alaska, where aging baby boomers dominate demographics more than most states. That demographic bulge, particularly prevalent in construction and other blue-collar trades, is now nearing retirement.

"I keep pulling up the average age of our members, this huge aging, graying group, and they're two years younger than me," says John Palmatier, executive secretary/treasurer for the Alaska Regional Council of Carpenters. "Then I look in the mirror and there's this old guy looking back at me."

Alaska currently has about 15,000 workers in the construction trade. If building trends remain steady, the state will need an additional 1,000 workers each year simply to replace retirees, says Mike Shiffer, assistant director of the Alaska Department of Labor's Division of Workforce Partnerships. That represents more than an eighth of each year's public high school graduating class in the state.

If construction ever starts on a long-desired North Slope natural-gas pipeline, a massive project that would bring natural gas nearly 4,000 miles away to the Midwest, the state might need as many as 9,000 new construction workers. "Clearly, Alaska is not going to be able to meet that demand," Mr. Shiffer adds.

The problem is rooted in historical circumstance: In the 1970s, just as the rest of the nation was mired in recession, Alaska's economy was exploding with jobs associated with construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Youthful and footloose boomers moved north.

Today, Alaska is no longer the worker magnet it once was. It has the third highest unemployment in the nation, trailing only Mississippi and Michigan. And while demand for skilled workers remains strong, the wage premium is largely gone. So businesses can't recruit from other states. They're having to look within state borders for new hires. Labor unions, business groups, the state, educational institutions, and native organizations are collaborating on aggressive programs to persuade young Alaskans to enter the construction industry. Of particular interest are individuals from groups not previously considered likely construction workers – Native youths from rural villages, women, and college-bound or college-educated students and young adults.

Ultimately, the goal is to kick the habit of recruiting from outside to build the economy – a pattern that dates back to the days of the Russian fur traders in the 18th century.

For example: the Piledrivers and Divers Local 2520 here in Anchorage is offering a four-year apprenticeship that can pay $18.08 an hour after four weeks and $32.14 an hour by the end of the program. "That's pretty good money for a kid just starting out," says Kevin Hanley, union president and coordinator of its training program.

His message is finding a receptive audience among native youths in villages. Nearly half of the apprentices in his program are native Alaskans, some of them with parents who don't speak English, he says. "I had a kid from Napakiak. When I called his father, his father hung up when he heard a white guy," Mr. Hanley says.

For Kathleen Bugbee, going into construction in the late 1980s was a practical choice. "I was single. I was starving. I flunked typing twice. I got As in welding," she says. She applied for apprenticeships and got one with the carpenters' union, where she is now a business-development specialist after many years on construction sites.

The wages are good, but for women, who are often primary caregivers for their children, there are drawbacks, Ms. Bugbee says. On construction sites, employers might not be able to accommodate day-care schedules or other needs of mothers, she says. "They could say, 'We've got a cement floor we've got to get ready, so we need you here for an extra couple of hours,' " she says.

The aging workforce is an issue for other Alaska economic sectors, officials say. The oil and gas industry has similar problems. About a third of Alaska's registered nurses are over 50, according to a 2005 report by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Whether the shortage of skilled workers is a problem depends on one's perspective, Mr. Fried maintains. "The flip side of that equation is shortages are certainly better than surpluses."

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