Building jobs offer some of best pay in Alaska

Posted: Thursday, November 06, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) Construction industry jobs were among Alaska's highest paying professions in 2002, according to state labor statistics.

Construction workers earned an average of $50,729 last year, according to the Department of Labor and Workforce Develop-ment. In general, that's second only to the oil and gas industry, and 37 percent above the statewide average of $37,101.

It's also no surprise to industry veterans like Conrad Frank, board chair for Fairbanks general contractor Ghemm Co. Despite some ups and downs, the industry has traditionally provided a good living here, the former Ghemm Co. owner said.

In August of this year, Alaska construction workers earned $28.72 an hour, nearly two dollars more than last year.

After a slow period in the late 1980s, the industry has enjoyed steady growth over the past decade, the DOL report stated.

Lots of overtime pay and the seasonal nature of the job contribute to the high wages, as employers look to pay enough to keep workers afloat during the offseason.

''To get those skilled workers, in many cases, you may also have to pay a premium because many of them are only working part of the year,'' said Neal Fried, a department labor economist who helped author the report, along with Brigitta Windisch-Cole and Brynn Keith.

The construction industry employs about 19,500 people by August, but drops to a low employment of roughly 12,500 in January.

''Between January and August, we gain almost 1,000 construction workers a month and then start laying off in September, October, November, December,'' said Dick Cattanach, executive director for Associated General Contractors of Alaska. ''There are probably 7,000 people that are going to experience some unemployment.''

Despite the reports of high pay, most will collect unemployment benefits. In 2002, the construction industry accounted for 13 percent of the people who claimed at least some unemployment money, according to draft numbers still being finalized by the department.

Still, Cattanach said, many workers also leave the state each year to continue working Outside, where the construction seasons are longer.

While modern construction industry wages remain relatively high compared to other professions, when adjusted for inflation the pay is less than what their predecessors earned in the 1970s and 1980s.

At that time, pay inflated as a surge of workers was needed to build the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and other construction, Cattanach said.

Pay increases have since slowed, he said. ''Wages and benefits have been going up at about 3 percent a year, and when you factor in the increased cost of health care, that means the amount going on the check has been probably 1 percent or less.''

Among Alaska's more generally defined industries, construction ranks second in earnings, below oil and gas professionals who took home an average of $96,158 a year in 2002.

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