Jobless outlook brighter

Unemployment up, but not as much as in '02 it was

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2003

As seasonal employment in the fishing and tourism industries ended with the arrival of cooler weather and shorter days, Alaska's labor market showed its typical September slowdown, but the unemployment rate rose only slightly to 6.8 percent, just one-tenth of a percent over that of August, according to the Alaska Depart-ment of Labor.

The same was true regionally in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, but here the unemployment change was larger, rising from 9.3 percent to 10.5 percent in September, reports the department's monthly magazine, "Alaska Economic Trends." Still, that was better than the 10.8 percent registered in September 2002.

The Kenai Peninsula, home to a large percentage of the state's seafood and tourism industry jobs, often sees sizable increases in unemployment at the end of summer.

Labor economist Brigitta Windisch-Cole said the combined employment loss statewide be-tween August and September amounted to about 4,700 jobs, with most of the contraction occurring in seafood processing (part of the manufacturing sector) and the leisure and hospitality sector.

Employment increases in public education, as teachers returned to the classrooms, partially offset expected seasonal declines, Windisch-Cole said. Also having an effect on the bottom-line figures were seasonal workers who left the state and those who simply are not seeking other jobs at this time. To be counted as unemployed, a person must be actively seeking work, Windisch-Cole said.

While the seasonal fall-off was expected, it turns out that compared to September 2002, Alaska's total wage and salary employment was 4,100 jobs ahead, an increase of 1.3 percent. Many sectors showed higher employment compared to the previous year, despite the end of summer.

Data showed employment in the education and health services sector had "a robust" growth of 6.9 percent over September 2002 figures, Windisch-Cole said, while the construction sector saw a healthy 3.7 percent rise.

Growth over the year in some sectors was more modest, while others registered overall losses.

For instance, the manufacturing and the natural resources and mining sectors showed job declines. Manufacturing was down 100 jobs due to declines in seafood processing, while natural resources and mining -- which includes oil and gas -- showed a loss of 1,000 jobs for the year, she said.

"Reductions in oil and gas employment accounted for most of this loss, with the industry providing 800 fewer jobs than in 2002, a decline of 9.5 percent," Windisch-Cole said.

Most of those oil industry jobs were North Slope jobs. As accounted for by the labor department, about 100 of the 800 are attributed to the Kenai Peninsula and Valdez, which are considered as part of the labor department's Gulf Coast region subset.

Much of that loss occurred on the peninsula, Windisch-Cole said.

Recent natural gas drilling activity has been a modifying factor in the general oil and gas industry employment decline, she said. So was employment in the construction industry during the building of the now-completed Kenai-Kachemak Pipeline now transporting natural gas from Ninilchik-area wells to Kenai.

In general, the Kenai Peninsula can expect higher seasonal swings than other parts of the state, Windisch-Cole said. "There is quite a bit of seafood and, of course, tourism business," she said.

The peninsula seafood industry, heavily focused on salmon and halibut, sees its decline somewhat sooner than, say, Kodiak, where late summer and early fall cod and pollock fisheries keep the seafood industry active, she said.

Strong seasonal declines in tourism employment also are seen in hotels and other accommodations establishments, and there is a slowdown at eating and drinking places, she said.

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