On Thursday afternoon, there were at least a dozen RVs parked at Fred Meyer in Soldotna. Several had Alaska license plates. One had Colorado plates, another originated in Louisiana.
The one parked closest to the main entrance of the department store wasn’t there for recreation, though.
“I don’t know if its a lack of people or just an increase in jobs, but it seems to be pretty common that employers are looking for help right now,” said Mike McBride, who sat in the vehicle. McBride is a vocational counselor with the Peninsula Job Center in Kenai.
McBride spent Thursday manning the Mobile Job Center, an RV equipped with high-speed Internet connections and laptop computers that the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development put into operation statewide in 2006.
The RV has space enough for three people at a time to register or search Alaska’s Labor Exchange System (ALEXsys), a database with job postings for job seekers and resume postings for employers. Last week was the center’s first central peninsula appearance, following an April appearance in Seward.
As of 1:45 p.m., McBride had seen one person.
“They had already registered on ALEXsys and they were looking for construction jobs,” McBride said. “They found a few leads.”
The slow day for the RV doesn’t help Fred Meyer. The department store is working to fill several positions, a typical situation during early summer.
That the Mobile Job Center sat in the parking lot Thursday it arrived Wednesday was partially a result of a collaboration between the Peninsula Job Center and the store; an attempt to fill the store’s yet-unfilled home, customer service, deli department and cashier positions.
Diana Spann, the Peninsula Regional Manager for the labor department, said several Soldotna businesses had approached the Peninsula Job Center’s business connections department to ask for summer hiring assistance in the past month. Among those employers were Safeway and McDonald’s of Soldotna and Fred Meyer. Spann requested the use of the center for Soldotna about two weeks ago, she said, because the closer the job listings are to the job seekers, the better in theory, anyway.
“Even though it’s only eight or ten miles, sometimes (the distance) can be a barrier,” Spann said.
According to Store Manager Ron Delany, the summer hiring push’s shorter time frame makes the season’s employee search more intense than the store’s year-round hiring.
“When you try to hire 100 people in a six week period, it’s a lot more difficult than when you’re hiring one or two a week,” Delany said.
Delany said his store works with the Peninsula Job Center all through the year, so when the idea for parking the Mobile Job Center at his store was floated, he was all for it.
“If it’s a tool that’s available, by golly, we’re gonna use that,” Delany said.
Fred Meyer isn’t the only peninsula employer having a rough time filling uniforms. Pepper Burnett, the area supervisor for McDonald’s restaurants in Kenai and Soldotna, said the typical late-May hiring difficulties came around again this year.
“We do have a hard time hiring, mainly because we have a lot of school kids who don’t want to start work yet,” Burnett said.
The McDonald’s stores in Kenai and Soldotna are still hiring, but Burnett noted that the restaurants’ use of 14- and 15-year-olds with restricted job duties which started this year has helped ease the transition.
Beyond students slow to jump into summer work, there are other summer hurdles for service worker seekers. Cannery work will likely pull away some McDonald’s employees soon, she said.
“We’ll lose a few, but that’s normal,” she said.
Another area restaurant that relies heavily on the labor of younger workers had a tougher time than usual this year. Jersey Subs owner Chris Fallon said he’s lucky his Soldotna store has enough people to make sandwiches.
“We just got filled up, but we’ve had a really hard time getting people,” Fallon said.
Fallon is used to this, as well. His sub stores in Soldotna, Kasilof and Ninilchik usually hire employees between the ages of 18 and 25, he said. Turnover is generally high, despite what he calls fast raises that can put sandwich-makers at $10 an hour in under a year.
“I’ve been through this for years,” Fallon said. “One year I went through 33 people.”
Still, 2006 has been a different sort of summer.
“Just this past couple months, it’s been harder than usual,” he said. “We haven’t even been getting applicants.”
Where are all the workers?
“Maybe they’re all going to Anchorage for the summer. I don’t know,” he said.
Spann, whose office deals with a dearth in available service workers every summer, said Fallon’s story is a common one in 2006. The expansion of the Safeway store in Soldotna and the expansion of Fred Meyer last year have made more jobs available and tightened competition.
“I would say that it is a little more difficult for them to find employees this year in the service industry,” she said.
To access the jobs posted through the department of labor, visit the Peninsula Job Center at 11312 Kenai Spur Highway, Suite 2 or go to the state Web site at http://www.jobs.state.ak.us.
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