December jobs report shows modest growth in Alaska’s oil and gas industry

Alaska has been in a recession for the better part of three years, and the state’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation right now at 6.3 percent. Many sectors of the economy have been shedding jobs, but there are some signs that the losses are slowing.

The state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development released its December employment numbers on Friday. 

They show that some sectors of the economy are still losing jobs. But state economist Neal Fried said some sectors — like the oil and gas industry — are recovering.

One is the negatives have, generally speaking, gotten considerably smaller, especially in negatives like oil and gas, which was a big, big loser. Those losses got a lot smaller and actually oil and gas employment turned positive in December over the year,” Fried said.

Turning positive means that in December 2018, there were more people employed in the oil and gas industry than there were in December 2017. So far, that means the Department of Labor’s forecast that jobs in the oil and gas industry would grow modestly this year is right on track. Oil industry jobs have been in a free fall since they peaked in 2015. New jobs in the oil and gas industry generally lead to more jobs in other sectors of the economy, like construction.

Those jobs come with a caveat though: If oil prices tank again — and stay down — that could slow down work in the oil patch.

Still, Fried said that the work that’s projected to be done this year is probably not going to be affected.

I mean, most of those projects and the activity is probably in place unless something really dramatic happened with price,” Fried said. “You know a lot of our oil industry activity is more project-based. You know if you get started you’re probably going to finish it.”

That sentiment was echoed by ConocoPhillips Alaska President Joe Marushack.

“We really have to plan our program out at least six months, eight months, nine months into the future. So we’re in the middle of what we call our ice road season, or our heavy drilling season, exploration season right now. That’ll be done in the next four or five months. So no, I wouldn’t say oil prices, whether they go up or down, will impact the 2019 program much, if anything at all,” Marushack said.

ConocoPhillips spokesperson Meredith Kenny said the company expects to need about 800 contractors during the 2019 construction and exploration season. She wrote in an email that it could mean jobs for more than 1,000 people during the company’s peak winter activity because “some of the jobs are alternating jobs — for example 4 weeks on, two weeks off with more than on person required for one position.”