For almost three years in a row, Alaska’s jobless rate has tracked below the national average. Economists say Alaska has been spared the brunt of the recession in the Lower 48.
The national jobless rate showed some improvement in November, dropping to 8.6%, the lowest since March 2009 – while Alaska’s jobless rate was at 7.4 percent in October
“Fundamentally, our economy is in a very different place than the national economy,” says Neal Fried, the state’s labor economist. “There are three states today that have more jobs today than in 2007, and that’s us, North Dakota and Texas.”
Each of those states has one common denominator: oil.
“This may be the first year that the price of oil in Alaska for the full calendar year will have been above a hundred dollars,” said Fried. “Who would have imagined that four or five years ago?”
Anchorage’s jobless rate is even lower than the state’s. In October it was at 5.6%. So far this year, it’s averaged around 6.2%.
“Overall, Anchorage has got an unemployment rate that is the envy of many other communities across the United States,” says Bill Popp, head of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation.
The AEDC says Anchorage saw an increase of 2,300 jobs in October 2011, compared to the year before, about a 1.5% increase. Popp these numbers tell an even bigger story than the jobless rate. He attributes Anchorage’s strong job markets to growth in the health and air cargo industries. Popp also says renewed exploration in Cook Inlet bodes well for the future.
“I think as the efforts gain more momentum, and as more money is being spent, we’re going to see a mini-boom here in Cook Inlet in the next several years that could be very beneficial to the regional economy, as well as securing our energy future,” said Popp.
Others at a state Jobs Center in midtown Anchorage feel less confident. During the lunch hour, almost every computer terminal in the room was filled with people looking for work.
“What does that tell you?” says Tom Wayne, who is a “mud logger,” a technician who keeps track of the sediments that an oil drilling rig brings to the surface.
“What I’m trying to do is get plane fare to go down to North Dakota, because there’s a lot more work down there in the oil fields than there is up here,” said Wayne.
“If a person wants to work, they’re going to find a job,” says Aaron Kreisel, a welder who has already taken jobs in North Dakota. Kreisel believes that in order to stay in Alaska, he’ll have to get more schooling in some other profession.
“A person has to diversify. You’ve got to do more than what you generally do for a profession.”
Zanetta Corbin agrees. She currently has a job as an administrative assistant, but says she doesn’t have the education it takes to find higher paying jobs. But that doesn't mean she doesn't stop trying.
“There’s a lot of competition,” she says. “That’s the hardest thing. There’s a lot of people looking for work. A lot. For every job, I have a different resume. I have about 25 different cover letters that I use.”
The owner of Kriner’s Diner in midtown says there’s a lot competition for jobs at his restaurant.
“When I do have a job opening, I get a lot of applicants, but I usually fill it pretty quick,” said Andy Kriner, who opened his diner a year-and-a-half ago. But overall, he says Anchorage businesses benefit from having strong employment.
“I’m in these four walls every day, and I go by what I see. Business is good,” says Andy Kriner, who believes people have money to spend in his restaurant, because they’re employed.
Fried says Alaska Native corporations, which are headquartered in Anchorage, have helped to recession-proof the city’s economy.
“Most company headquarters are somewhere else in the country. And their businesses may be here, but their money flows out of state. That’s the typical Alaska model, where we see a lot of leakage in our economy,” says Fried, who believes Native corporations are beginning to reverse this model.
While the job outlook for next year is expected to be similar to this year’s, economists say there’s trouble on the horizon. With federal budget cuts in the offing, Alaska could see some significant jobs erosion by the fall of 2013.
“Because Alaska is more dependent on federal dollars than most other states, we’ll probably feel it more than other states,” said Fried.
Popp says Anchorage has already lost about 250 federal jobs this year. But those losses were offset by growth in the private sector, a trend Popp hopes can continue for as long as possible.