Service sector jobs explode in past decade

Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Jobs in Alaska's service sector have exploded over the past decade while the number of jobs in industries that produce goods, such as oil and gas, timber, fishing and mining, have declined.

The growth in service industry jobs includes everything from hospitals and schools to grocery stores and auto body shops, according to the Alaska Labor Department.

Government jobs still dominate Alaska employment. But over the past 10 years, there has been a substantial shift in the kind of private sector jobs Alaska supports.

According to the Alaska Labor Department, there were 40,300 jobs in the state's goods-producing industries in 1991. By last year, that number had dipped to 39,600. At the same time, the number of service industry jobs rose 31 percent to 171,900 last year from 130,900 in 1991.

''It's a reflection of the change in the Alaskan economy,'' said Neal Fried, a state labor economist.

The shift to a services-based economy isn't unique to Alaska. It's been happening nationwide for decades.

But the shift has had a disproportionate impact on Alaska, where many communities historically have been more reliant on natural resources for their economic vitality. For many, the transition has meant not only adjusting to a new job, but also a lighter paycheck.

The jobs in Alaska's goods-producing industries, especially oil, have tended to have very high wages. In 2001, the average annual pay in Alaska's oil industry was $92,640, according to the latest Labor Department data.

Those kind of wages are difficult to match in the services industries, according to Fried.

Greg Jurkowski, a science teacher at Chugiak High School, is among those who have made that transition.

In January 1999, he was laid off from his job as a geophysicist at BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. after a 17-year career there. It was a highly specialized, high-paying job in which he used scientific techniques to build clear pictures of what's beneath the surface of the Earth.

It also was work Jurkowski had done virtually all his professional life.

''That was really my whole career,'' he said.

Jurkowski's wife, Lisa Wright, lost her job as a geological technician at BP during the same round of layoffs. She was able to find a comparable position at Arco Alaska Inc. shortly afterward.

''That kept us going as I went through a year-and-a-half program at UAA to get my teaching certificate,'' Jurkowski said.

As a teacher at Chugiak High, Jurkowski said he earns less than half what he did as a geophysicist at BP.

But he said the cut in pay wasn't really a big issue when plotting his next career move. In fact, after he had gotten his teaching certificate he turned down an opportunity to return to the company on a contract basis under very financially attractive terms.

''They were paying about $120 an hour and wanted me to stick around,'' he said. ''But I wanted to get a job with a future.''

Jurkowski also said he and his wife had thought about leaving Alaska. However, with two kids in high school and a real affinity for the state that has been their home for the past 20 years they decided to stick around.

''We would have gone somewhere else if we had thought it would be good for our kids. But we really felt that the best thing to do for the kids was to stay,'' he said.

Jodi Muzzana lives in Ketchikan, a community that has been among those affected most by the change. The Southeast town's historical base of high-paying jobs in industries like logging, pulp processing and fishing has been slowly displaced by typically lower-paying jobs in services industries like tourism and retailing.

Muzzana, who now runs the flower department at a Carrs store there, is among the thousands who have made the shift.

She worked at the Ketchikan Pulp Co. for 11 years, moving up from a position in the wood room working with heavy equipment to a more skilled position, performing chemical testing in the mill's lab.

The mill closed in 1997, and Muzzana said she saw it as an opportunity to pursue what had been a longtime interest in the flower business. She got hired at the Carrs shortly after leaving the mill. She took a three-week floral-arrangement course in Seattle and was offered the position as manager of the store's floral department shortly afterward.

Still, it took her a while to get back to a paycheck that was comparable to what she earned at her previous job.

''I'm making more now than I did at the pulp mill,'' she said ''But when I made the switch, it was quite a drastic cut in pay.''

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