The Aspen Hotel in Sitka, one of the chain’s seven properties in the state, has addressed worker scarcity by boosting starting pay to $19, offering retirement benefits, and a free pair of shoes. “I have noticed a good retention rate right now,” Aspen manager Holly Reeder told the Sitka Economic Summit. (Aspen Hotel image)

Sitka’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in almost two decades (2.9%) – which sounds good, but may actually indicate a scarcity of workers.

Balancing that low unemployment rate is another statistic: 38% of Sitka’s workforce is non-resident.

These were among the numbers crunched last week (7-14-22) at the Sitka Economic Summit. The event, held at the University of Alaska Sitka Campus, was a smaller version of previous summits held routinely before the pandemic in Harrigan Centennial Hall – however, this year’s summit was focused on Workforce Development.

The statistical data are collected by the McKinley Research Group, and paid for by the Sitka Economic Development Association, which publishes the numbers in an annual report called “Trends.”

SEDA director Garry White discussed Sitka’s employment situation with the group.

“In 2011, 67% of our workforce was comprised of local residents, meaning that 33% of our folks that work here don’t live here, and those are our seasonal people,” White said. “But it’s gotten progressively worse, lower than that. Now it’s down to 38% of our workforce doesn’t live here. So these are jobs that either folks can’t afford to live here on the wages that are out there for maybe some of the folks that are working in the fish processing plants, some of the retail folks. But it’s a little bit concerning that we’re losing  local folks who aren’t having jobs here.”

Sitka Chamber of Commerce director Rachel Roy said her organization had been working with the business community, holding roundtable discussions, in order to better understand systemic problems in the workforce.

Roy seconded the idea that there weren’t enough workers to go around right now, forcing some businesses to consider underqualified applicants.

“Our overall responses was really that there was a shortage of workers applying for positions,” said Roy, “Where once you may have had a position post and you got 10 applicants, you now may have had a job open for way longer than that, and just not seeing applicants or not seeing qualified applicants. And so that’s been an interesting thing, where someone will come with a completely different job/career path, and looking to fill a position that they’re just not trained for.”

Roy said there were also significant concerns over housing and childcare for employees.

Nationwide, the answer to attracting and retaining employees has been to raise pay and benefits. Holly Reeder, the manager of Sitka’s Aspen Hotel, said that’s the strategy that the hotel’s  seven properties in Alaska are trying.

“So it started with raising our base rate,” said Reeder. “Everybody, every incoming employee at the very base level is at $19/hour, which really helped to attract and keep people. We looked into other incentive programs: We started a 401K program for all employees that they’re eligible for after working 90 days; we worked with a company called Shoes For Crews to try and get good footwear for all of our employees, again eligible for a free pair of shoes. after working 90 days. We’re trying stuff like that, to try and just add benefits for our employees, and I have noticed a good retention rate right now.”

The summit touched on many factors contributing to problems in the workforce, and also explored solutions, like creating more incentives programs like Aspen’s, creating an affordable insurance pool among Sitka businesses, and adding more certificate training programs at the university. But a simple path forward wasn’t all that clear. As one audience member observed, “The problem is we’re living in an old school world, and you have kids making YouTube videos and making way more money than we make working at a convenience store.”