Canneries fish for workers

Area processors struggle to find new employees

Posted: Friday, February 17, 2006


  A cannery worker sorts fillets in Nikiski several years ago. The labor pool for cannery workers has changed over time. Photo by M. Scott Moon

A cannery worker sorts fillets in Nikiski several years ago. The labor pool for cannery workers has changed over time.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Most Alaskans looking for work in the canneries of the fishing industry usually end up with plenty of opportunities. So do most foreign workers.

As the years go by, so do the cycles of the labor force on cannery row. Entering 2006, Alaskans should find plenty of opportunities while working alongside many from foreign countries.

“Twenty years ago, it was a lot of friends and family,” said Dave Brindle, a superintendent with Pacific Star Seafood. “It gradually changed from college kids to where we ended up with more of the transient labor. For us, we have a lot of employees out of Seattle and California and they do a lot of recruiting for us. We’ve got employees that help recruit employees.”

While college kids are still employed, the bulk of the jobs have gone to locals — including high school kids — and are now reaching deeper into foreign roots.

Vince Goddard, owner of Inlet Fish Producers Inc., believes — as do most in the industry — that it’s getting more and more difficult to retain those already trained, especially when filling leadership positions.

“It’s always a challenging circumstance because our employment time period is so short, yet it demands an impressive skill set from people,” Goddard said. “It’s an interesting circumstance. A lot of people we have in management do it as a lifestyle choice as opposed to a career opportunity. It does allow them to do other things during the year and still work intensely in the summer.”

Goddard regularly employs 250 to 300 during the season from early June to September. However, turnover during the season turns those numbers into 500 to 600 total bodies coming through his business.

One key factor is attributed to wages. In short, the industry just has not kept up. Add the fact that most youngsters are finding other ways to make a dollar as opposed to being cold, wet and fishy and gradually the canneries are left searching.

“The industry in this area, we look at a starting wage of $7.50 an hour, give or take,” said Brandii O’Reagan, owner and president of Integrity Seafood Inspection Service. “It’s usually minimum wage, and then an additional 5 or 10 cents, with time-and-a-half for overtime. A lot of places offer room and board, or room and one meal a day. Sometimes there’s a charge, sometimes there’s not. Sometimes companies will give another 5 or 10 cents for coming back the second year, or after you’ve been there so many hours.

“In management, it goes $11 or $12 an hour, and up to $15 to $17 an hour, depending on size of the plant and how long you’ve been there and how much experience you have. Being able to sort species usually results in an increase. Knife skills are paid a little more, being able to fillet and trim.”

Brindle said his company will pay for food, housing and gear to do their job.

“For some people all of their airfare is paid for, others it’s half. Some of the newer ones have to pay their way up,” Brindle said.

In addition to the wages, some parts of the work force don’t find the attractions that others did years ago.

“I started in the late 1980s, early 1990s as a college student,” O’Reagan said. “There was a very adventurous atmosphere. The possibility of making $4,000 to $5,000 in a summer was a big draw, but also the adventure of going to Alaska was a draw. I don’t know that I see that as much. We get some kids who wanted to see Alaska and it was a way to do it, but I think that aspect is missing.”

Now the college-age kids are coming from European nations. The state has put together different programs facilitating this influx, and workers are readily available.

Employers try to lure as many Alaskans as possible, but many choose other jobs.

“This has been a slow, gradual change, and actually every five or so years, there’s a change in the structure of the work crew,” Goddard said. “For instance, the college folks dried up more or less 10 years ago. Then, for a long time, we had a much larger percentage of high school kids that would come and work. There’s been a large development of other jobs in the community, we don’t have as many. The whole Kenai area has diversified.”

It’s a good and bad situation for the area, and Goddard reminds, “I think what would be really good is if the industry found a way to pay people more.”

So the beat goes on — employers trying to find the seasonal workers, keeping it in-state as much as possible, but continuing to adapt to the one constant: change itself. It is a constant that adds stress to the leadership positions.

“It is getting harder and harder, just because there are so many other job opportunities out there,” Brindle said. “You can’t pay them enough to survive on seasonal work. You can get good employees and groom them, but you tend to lose them. The days of 80 percent return employment have long gone. We’re dealing with 50-60 percent.”

It’s a declining number that raises concern for where future workers will come from.

“I never saw myself in the industry, but I started at 18 and stayed in. If you’re not attracting people early and keeping them, allowing them to see it could be a lifetime career, I don’t know what we’ll see in the years to come for the industry.”

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