Brandii O'Reagan, owner of Integrity Seafood Inspection Service, is trying to build interest in cannery jobs.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
While jobs are plentiful for Alaskans on cannery row, Brandii O’Reagan believes there is much more that can be done to improve the industry. And it starts with the labor force on the row.
O’Reagan, owner of Integrity Seafood Inspection Service, has seen the industry change and adapt for nearly 20 years. Long gone is the U.S. college kid work force, and finding a footing are foreign workers. Somewhere in the midst of that, O’Reagan hopes to find a vibrant solution that solidifies and slows down change among the labor.
“One thing I’m seeking is renewing interest in college-age kids,” O’Reagan said. “It’s an option: This is how much money you can make, and spend your summer in Alaska with adventure.
O’Reagan sees the industry’s summer jobs as opportunities in some colleges and universities for academic credit.
“Maybe it can translate into college credits, especially in leadership and quality assurance,” O’Reagan said. “My company, ISIS, has developed industry training for people who are interested in moving up to plant manager, production manager, quality control manager. There’s no training in the state for those positions.”
Dave Brindle of Pacific Star Seafood thinks the industry can benefit from local workers, even high school-age kids.
“We’ve talked about putting on training to give them fork lift training, and put them in better-paying jobs,” Brindle said. “Our locals are limited, especially with all the processors around. For me, I would love to spend the time and money to have a local kid that can do more of a skilled position. Five years ago, I was running a plant in Seward for 14 years, but I was steering people away from processing plants because the industry was in a nosedive.
“Now it’s not. I see a good future for salmon. We’re definitely not dependent on Japan to sell our sockeye salmon. The industry is in better shape, but the rate of pay hasn’t increased with it.”
For most job seekers in Alaska, being Alaskan is a leg up in the process. But in the canneries, there’s more jobs than Alaskans currently want.
“We prefer to hire Alaskans because then we don’t have to provide housing,” O’Reagan said. “Everybody we bring in, they have to have a tent site and camping, laundry service, everything. But the industry has subsided itself on an outside work force. That’s who cannery workers are, college students and foreigners.”
The fewer U.S. workers who come, the more those jobs will go to overseas workers.
“A lot of folks are using J-1 (Visa) students, foreign students coming in,” Brindle said. “Typically, Anchorage is the point of hire for these students. We’ll send a bus up to get them, and bring them down. Without them, there would not be enough employees for the state of Alaska.”
The “J” exchange visitor program is designed to promote the interchange of persons, knowledge and skills in the fields of education, arts and sciences.
“There was talk of not allowing the J-1 students, and that would cripple this industry,” Brindle said. “At Pacific Star, we’re shooting for 150 employees this season if I can get them. At least 40 percent are tentatively going to be J-1. There’s just not enough help.”
O’Reagan wants to go one step further, not just take care of one season at a time.
“... I’m trying to contact international schools in economies that really depend on farmed fish. Those economies have developed schools for fisheries, such as in Ireland, Scotland and Australia. I want to pursue some kind of relationship with them, where they send students over here and see production of nonfarmed salmon. Maybe some of the wild salmon industry could benefit from some of their expertise.”
Bringing already trained foreign cannery workers to Alaska would be a way to capitalize on an existing trend.
“What I foresee as a benefit is to get some of their trained people in our supervisory roles,” O’Reagan said. “We get stuck in the idea that this is a five-week industry, and sometimes, we get so caught up in that we miss ideas for making things better.
“I could see where if we had people come in with a farm processing mentality, they might see procedures and see that this could be more efficiently done this way. (They) can see something other than the way you handle a farmed salmon, and we could benefit from additional input in the industry.
“Those could be huge rose-colored glasses that would never happen, but I could see where both would benefit.”
Alan Wooten is a freelance writer who lives in Nikiski.
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