Study: Alaskans don't always return

Posted: Wednesday, January 07, 2004

A recent Alaska Department of Labor study says nearly two of every five Alaskans who were 15 to 19 years old in 1994 have left the state for life and employment Outside, a loss of talent some have called the "brain drain."

Alaska has one of the highest migration rates in the nation, according to Jeff Hadland, an economist with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, author of the brain-drain article in the January issue of Alaska Eco-nomic Trends.

According to the data, not only are nearly 40 percent of Alaskans who were in their mid to late teens in 1994 gone today, since 1998 those Alaskans have been leaving at a faster rate than the rest of the population in general.

Of the more than 16,000 youngsters ages 15 and 16 living here in 1994, 91.2 percent were left by 1995 and 82.6 percent by 1997. The trend continued, through 2002 when just 62.3 percent remained.

For their older brothers and sisters age 17 to 19 in 1994, a similar pattern appeared, resulting in only 61.2 percent remaining by 2002. By comparison, of Alaskans 40 to 49 years old in 1994, better than 76 percent are still residents.

A lack of jobs is part of the reason for the migration south.

According to Hadland, in 2002 almost two times as many 16-year-olds entered the labor market (11,246) as there were jobs created (6,500). Job availability for younger workers may soon increase as a high percentage of Alaskans approach retirement age, but that may not be enough.

"The likelihood exists of a mismatch between the skills of new workers and job openings," Hadland said in the article. "Youth face an obvious disadvantage in competition with more experienced workers. The lure of the much larger job markets to the south cannot be ignored."

What isn't known, Hagland said in an interview Monday, is whether a good job is the primary reason young former Alaskans are choosing a life Outside, or whether other attractions are making the grass greener on the other side of the fence.

"We have no data on that," Hagland said. "I think you'd need to do some sort of survey."

Hagland said the study, which used among other things unemployment records, education data and applications for the Alaska Permanent Fund to create a migration picture, was somewhat atypical in that department studies of this type have not previously followed a specific age group to determine trends. He also said he isn't certain the decade studied is all that different from other periods.

"I'm sure migration rates have ebbed and flowed," he said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough did not escape the sobering trend. According to the data, of the 1,409 Kenai Peninsula residents age 15 and 16 in 1994, 41.4 percent, or 583, now live and work Outside. Another 233, or 16.5 percent, moved to another part of Alaska, such as Anchorage, where the job market is better.

By comparison, 39.3 percent of the 6,089 15- and 16-year-old Alaskans living in Anchorage in 1994 have moved Outside, and only 8.5 percent have moved to another Alaska location. Better than half still live and work in Anchorage.

Hadland said the highest migration rates are typically among the young, a time when individuals are either continuing their education or considering a serious job or career.

For young Alaskans, higher education clearly is a factor in decisions of where one lives after high school. Seven in 10 of the 1994 group that went on to postsecondary education attended the University of Alaska.

While data did not show a breakdown of where Kenai Peninsula high school graduates chose to go to college (in state, Outside or both), better than 56 percent did get at least some postsecondary education. That put the peninsula about in the middle among major population zones. Anchorage, for instance sent 57.5 percent of its graduates off to college or trade school. The number was 52.6 percent in the Matanuska Valley and 55.2 percent in Juneau.

For the general population, the 1990s saw people leave at an average rate of 7.2 percent per year. Alaskans heading Outside to college most often went to Washing-ton or California, which also were the two states responsible for attracting Alaskans or from where new Alaskans arrived.

Economic uncertainty wasn't the only thing motivating young people to leave or stay, however. Cultural and environmental factors also had an effect on migration patterns and didn't necessarily lead to decisions to leave. Hagland said some of the rural regions of Alaska had low migration despite being areas of slow economic growth.

As to how the state should respond to the so-called brain drain, Hagland said ideas like local hire are aimed at providing more opportunity for Alaskans. He also said he's heard discussion about contacting students going to school Outside and encouraging them to return to Alaska for summer employment in the hopes that would fortify connections to the state that could pay off with their return after graduation.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who represents lower peninsula residents, said he's well aware of the dilemma. Stevens spent 25 years teaching at the University of Alaska. He noted that the university still offers the top 10 percent of Alaska high school graduates free tuition if they attend the university.

"That's had an impact," he said. "I think that it is good to encourage kids to go to school in Alaska because then they are more likely to stay."

But he also said it's hard to deny youngsters an opportunity to go Outside to college and to see other parts of the world. Two of his three children attended college in the Lower 48. One is likely to remain there, he said.

Stevens said it is clear Alaska has to find a way to create opportunities for younger residents if it expects to slow migration. He pointed to the fishing industry as one that no longer offers the kind of opportunities it did in the 1970s, a time when many people began working in canneries, went on to crew and then own their own boats and became successful.

Limited entry, while doing much to save lives and reduce harvest pressures on fisheries resources, also has made it tougher to enter the field. There is less incentive. Fishing has lost some of its appeal, Stevens said.

"It takes so much money now," he said, adding that he had no specific legislative plans to address the issue, but would like to encourage dialogue about it.

Beyond that, Stevens said the state should concentrate on boosting vocational education opportunities in high school and college so Alaskans can take jobs now going to skilled workers from Outside.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said young Alaskans basically are looking for a fulfilling life and that's what Alaska must offer to encourage them to stay. Chenault said that's why Alaska should encourage new business.

"And not just in oil and gas," he said, "but any development that would promote more jobs. Not the Kmart type, but high-tech jobs. A lot of those can be done anywhere in the world. Why not Alaska?"

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