Low Unemployment Limits Anchorage’s Business Growth

Anchorage’s unemployment rate for May is 4.9 percent, one of the lowest rates in the state. Though that may seem like a good thing, it’s actually a barrier for growth in the state’s largest city. Businesses are having trouble finding reliable workers.

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New retail stores are popping up all around Anchorage — Cabela’s, Bass Pro, an outlet mall. And with them comes hundreds of entry level jobs, which could be a problem.

In “retail right now, we’re hearing a lot of complaints about the lack of a qualified workforce,” said Bill Popp, president and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation. “Which is an interesting situation to be in because normally retail has some of the least difficulties finding someone who can be qualified to come in on an entry level position.”

Popp says low unemployment rates make it hard for businesses to fill the estimated 1,500 – 2,500 jobs that are currently available in the city, and he expects the rate to drop even lower by the end of the summer. But he says the problem isn’t just the lack of people seeking work, it’s a lack of reliable workers to fill low wage jobs.

“The skill sets in the individual, like the understanding of the need to show up to work on time, properly groomed and dressed. Understanding fully that they need to be able to pass a drug test, which is a very serious issue for pretty much every employer.”

Wanetta Ayers with the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development calls these work maturity skills, and she says they can be taught to both youth and adults. “Just honestly developing an awareness of it is a start.”

Ayers says the state funds programs aimed at students, at-risk youth, and adults to help them develop the basic communication and work skills necessary to hold down a job. She says they also focus on teaching life skills to help them overcome barriers to working. “For example they may need childcare, they may need transportation, just to figure out how to structure the kind of support network to be able to show up on time and regularly.”

Ayers says some people, especially youth, aren’t employed because they don’t really understand their options. She says workers can go to one of the state’s 21 jobs centers and receive guidance.

“One of the things they help people identify is what is the right occupation for me. What are the labor market conditions? What kind of growth is there? So that they are really making an informed choice about the occupation they are choosing to go into,” she explains.

The state is currently spending $21 million on programs aimed at preparing and training the workforce and teaching people higher end skills as well.

AEDC’s survey research shows there’s also a lack of skilled workers in fields like IT and health care. Anchorage is the 23rd most expensive city in US for living, and there’s a housing shortage, so it’s hard to attract people with specialized training.