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Econ 919 ― Help wanted

Photo: Sabine Poux/KDLL

There have been a lot of “help wanted” signs in store windows this spring. The Kenai Peninsula, like the rest of the country, is facing a worker shortage, with too many job openings and not enough applicants.

It’s impacted Shelly Endsley, who owns the Orca Theater on Kalifornsky Beach Road. 

“I would say the problem started within the last month and a half, two months. I mean, before, I never had an issue," Endsley said. "But with the onslaught of everybody employing people, they can pick and choose where they want to go.”

Orca’s summer employees are usually college-aged students who are looking for something to do while they’re home.

But this year, Endsley has struggled to attract workers. And even when she has gotten applicants, she said she’d had a hard time getting them to show up to interviews or to stay at work. 

“I just lost two more employees that are going to a different job," she said. "And last week I lost another employee.”

Businesses across the country are facing a similar plight. As economies have opened back up, employers say they’ve been unable to get and retain help.

Nolan Klouda directs the University of Alaska’s Center for Economic Development. He said no one really knows why the labor shortage is happening.

Economists are considering a host of different factors, like insufficient childcare, challenges related to traveling to the state amid the pandemic and the fact that a lot of employers are hiring for the same types of jobs. 

He said the problem may be especially pronounced in a state like Alaska.

“Even before the current crunch, or even before the COVID pandemic, Alaska always had a very tight labor market," Klouda said. "We just have a small population, a small workforce. So at any given time, any given number of popular occupations are just hard to fill.”

In a statewide business survey taken in April, nearly a third of respondents said a hurdle to hiring new employees was they didn’t have enough applicants. Only 10 percent of respondents reported difficulties finding qualified employees. 

At the same time, Alaska still has a high number of jobless people. Recent data from the state’s Department of Labor shows that the job count in May this year was still nearly 30,000 jobs below where it was in 2019. 

Klouda said that paradox could in part be due to a mismatch between the jobs available and the skills unemployed Alaskans have.

“And it defies a lot of the easy explanations, including that unemployment benefits are the main culprit," Klouda said. "Which is potentially part of the story, but there’s a lot of uncertainty as to how much of the story is about that.”

A lot of employers say the unemployment benefits coming from the federal government are deterring people from finding work. Alaska became one of the first states to end its participation in that federal program earlier this month, citing a need for workers and a surplus of job openings.

Klouda said that could be part of the picture, although it’s not the full explanation. If it was, he said something would have shifted when the benefits dropped off from the additional $600 to $300 in weekly payments.

Wildman’s, in Cooper Landing, is struggling to attract workers. Owner Cheryle James said this is the second year in a row they’ve dealt with a smaller staff.

“I thought I had everybody hired at one point," she said. "And then somebody couldn’t come. One person showed up and then quit. I had five people walk out on me in the middle of the night.”

Wildman’s usually has longer hours in the summer, during the peninsula’s busy fishing season. But this summer and last, James has kept their hours shorter. 

She said that’s worked OK for them.

“It’s been so far, so good. Knock on wood, it’s been OK," James said.

James is still looking for at least two more employees for her summer staff. She said there’s a lot of competition, since a lot of employers are looking for help.

“There’s different incentive bonuses out there that I can’t meet," James said.

Some businesses have raised the pay for employees. Trustworthy Hardware in Soldotna added bonuses for staff who stick around through the summer.

It’s all given employees a lot of choice and bargaining power, said Klouda.

“I think that they’re in a position to ask for higher pay," he said. "Employers are really compelled to offer it. And each applicant probably has other offers that they can entertain, too.”

Endsley said she would pay her employees more if she could. But the Orca struggled during the pandemic, between its closures and the lack of films coming out of Hollywood last year. She said they hardly have enough to stay open, let alone raise wages.

“At this point with us looking at possibly closing the doors, we can’t afford it," Endsley said.

She’s waiting to hear whether she’s received money from a grant program meant for businesses that had to close during the pandemic. If not, she said she might have to close her business for good.

Meantime, she said she hopes patrons understand if the theater’s service is slower than usual without the additional help.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.