Recession may stem Alaska migration

Posted: Sunday, July 26, 2009

Alaska generally bucks national economic trends. When the Lower 48 is immersed in a recession, people tend to migrate north to Alaska.

So with the nation currently entrenched in a major recession -- unemployment has surpassed 9 percent, while Alaska's is at about 8 percent -- one would imagine there would be a rush heading north. But for a variety of reasons, the wave could be restrained, said state labor economist Neal Fried.

One reason is the absence of a major economic project on Alaska's near-term horizon, such as construction of a natural gas pipeline. If given such a project, Alaska would attract tens of thousands of job seekers, as did development of the oil pipeline, Fried said in the June Alaska Economic Trends, a publication of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

But pipeline construction, if it happens, is years away. Meanwhile, Alaska's job market is expected to be soft through 2009, so unlike the booms of the 1970s and 1980s, or even the stability of the 1990s, Alaska won't have a plethora of jobs to fill, Fried said.

Another factor is the decreasing mobility of the nation's population. U.S. census data shows that the move rate for the population nationally fell to a 60-year low in 2008 and Alaska's gross migration rate also has fallen noticeably since the early 1980s.

One reason is the country's aging population. During the 1970s and 1980s, the baby boomers -- a disproportionately large share of the population -- were young and young people tend to move more frequently than older people.

The higher percentage of families with two wage earners also makes moving more difficult, Fried said. Add to that the most recent development of a deteriorating housing market, which makes selling a home more difficult, and moving is more difficult for the homeowners, he said.

All that said, given the relatively small size of Alaska's population -- it fits into the city of Seattle proper, with room to spare -- even a muted migration response to the nation's economic woes could have a significant impact on the state, Fried said.

Interesting side notes are whether the well-publicized record amount for the 2008 Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, as well as talk of a gas pipeline project, a famous governor and popular television series focusing on the state's industries have kept Alaska in the public eye and in the minds of job seekers.

"It's impossible to gauge precisely how potential job seekers outside the state perceive opportunities in Alaska, but with all that's going on, it will be an interesting few years," Fried said.

Most of the current evidence that Alaska is seeing more migration than average is anecdotal, he said. State job centers report an increase in the number of out-of-state job inquiries, plus an increase in job applicants who are recent arrivals to Alaska. Employers tell a similar story, Fried said.

And Alaska's 8 percent unemployment rate in April was up 1.4 percentage points from a year ago. Since Alaska hasn't seen the kind of job losses the nation has suffered, the increase in unemployment is coming mostly from another source, Fried said.

Part of the explanation is probably that the number of people actively seeking work in Alaska has risen because of new arrivals from out of state. Another likely possibility is that fewer people are leaving Alaska to seek job opportunities in the weak national job market, he said.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at

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