Job market better than most

Posted: Monday, April 19, 2004

Alaska registered its 16th consecutive year of employment growth in 2003, even as much of the rest of the nation struggled to create jobs, say analysts with the Alaska Department of Labor.

Labor economists Dan Robinson, Neal Fried, Brigitta Windisch-Cole and Neal Gilbertsen published their review of 2003 in the April 2004 Alaska Economic Trends.

Their findings indicate Alaska added about 4,500 new jobs, slightly more than half of which were in health care and social assistance. Although the 1.5-percent job growth rate was down from the previous three years, it was considered "still healthy" compared with most of the country, the analysts said.

Windisch-Cole said a statewide economic forecast would be published in May. While she could not talk about details, she did predict that the current trend should continue.

"We are expecting job growth over the next two years," she said.

While job growth in 2003 was up overall, some sectors of the economy posted a net loss of employment, according to the trends review. The oil industry, for instance, lost jobs in 2003. There are about 15 percent fewer oil jobs than in 2001.

Meanwhile, seafood processing statewide boosted employment in Alaska's relatively small manufacturing sector, compared to Outside, by 400 during 2002. Other manufacturing-sector businesses combined to employ 3,700 workers, the same as in 2002, so the growth in that sector was primarily due to a strong fishing season.

Other sectors saw net employment growth, as well. Construction has added 1,800 jobs over the past two years, while retail trade added 200 jobs a figure considered "minimal" by the analysts, who nevertheless said any growth in that sector was seen as healthy considering the loss of approximately 600 jobs due to store closures by Big Kmart.

There was job growth also in banking, real estate and insurance, as well as in the hotel and restaurant businesses. There also was modest growth in government jobs, 400 of which resulted from the federalization of airport security, the analysts said.

In the Gulf Region, which includes the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the Kodiak Island Borough and the Valdez-Cordova area, job growth was much more modest just 0.2 percent, adding just 50 new wage and salary jobs over the entire region, Windisch-Cole said.

"Employment gained some ground in the Valdez-Cordova census area and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, but suffered losses in the Kodiak Island Borough," she wrote in the trends report. "Therefore, regional job numbers remained flat."

Jobs grew fastest in Valdez-Cordova, a 5.6 percent increase, while the peninsula registered a 0.6-percent increase. Kodiak's growth was just 0.3 percent, according to Trends.

The Kenai Peninsula felt the pain of job loss in its oil economy. According to Windisch-Cole, the local oil industry posted more than 1,200 jobs in January 2003, but by April, employment had fallen below 1,000 a level it maintained in the remaining months. Em-ployment also dropped by 60 jobs in oil- and gas-related manufacturing due to scaled-back production, she said.

Windisch-Cole said the Labor Department did not expect job loss in the oil and gas industry to continue at the same pace. Employment is expected to level off, she said.

Big Kmart's closure in Kenai had a negative impact on jobs in retail employment on the peninsula. However, employment actually grew in the leisure and hospitality sector and in the health care industry, partially offsetting the oil and retail industry losses, she said.

Research pointed to turbulence in the seafood industry in the Gulf Region. Windisch-Cole said changes of plant ownership, closures and near closures were causes. Saturated global salmon markets didn't help, she said.

"Markets were particularly depressed in pink and chum salmon species," she noted. "In Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet and Kodiak waters, sockeye salmon remained the money-making species."

Alaska's apparent resistance to job-loss rates experienced Outside in recent years can be attributed not so much to what Alaska does that's different, but to what it simply doesn't have.

"We don't have the industries that were hit hard by the downturn, such as in the information sector, particularly in computers," Windisch-Cole said.

She said tourism did take a bit of a hit, but not as bad as in some other locations. Transportation suffered nationwide, but the freight component helped prop up the industry in Alaska.

Windisch-Cole also said the state does not expect major change within the manufacturing sector's fishing component this year.

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