Where do workers fill all vacancies in Anchorage? It is complicated.

Pima coffee, James Strong, Sweet Caribou, epidemiological stories

Anchorage Daily News and Anchorage Museum They collaborate in a continuous series of articles, Neighbors: Stories from the Anchorage Pandemic Years. We collect stories and provide opportunities for residents to share experiences from the past two years. We would like to hear from you. Send an email to neighbors@adn.com.

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Inside James Strong’s new Midtown Café sat Café Bema, freshly painted mural, new raw wood tables and an espresso machine at the ready. He wanted to start serving locally roasted coffee.

“My only problem now is the staff,” he said recently. “There is absolutely no one to work for.”

Strong also owns Sweet Caribou, the salad shop next door, and has been understaffed for years now. Early in the pandemic when business was tied up in states and workers were eligible for increased unemployment, he thought no one was applying because they were making more money staying home. But these benefits have long since run out. The workers did not return.

“I think now there are a lot of variables,” he said.

labor shortage The burden continues to be on employers In Anchorage and across the country, particularly in retail, hospitality and food services. It’s also a fact of life for consumers who are accustomed to long car queues, long waits and restaurants closing two or more days a week. Many people ask: Where did the workers go?

Pima coffee, James Strong, Sweet Caribou, epidemiological stories

Strong manages to open his own coffee shop, but is still looking for employees. Before starting Sweet Caribou, he was studying for a Ph.D. in economics. He has a theory that there are more retirees than before the pandemic. Furthermore, people are not moving to Alaska as they once did. Some restaurant employees have turned to the burgeoning cannabis industry. There are also fewer workers from other countries, he said. It’s not far off, say Alaskan economists who study the shortage.

[A shrinking workforce is holding back Anchorage’s economic recovery after COVID-19, report finds]

Neil Fried, the state’s economist, said the state’s labor market problems are in line with national trends. He said the labor shortage may be more extreme right now in Alaska than abroad due to the seasonal nature of the economy. He said the lower 48 economy has recovered in many ways from the pandemic, but Alaska’s economy is still catching up. The state has lower unemployment rates than Alaska, but it’s still slightly higher than the national average.

“We still have a lot more jobs now than we have people looking for jobs even though, you know, we don’t have this terribly strong economy,” he said.

He said other factors are also at play, including the forces that were in motion before the pandemic. . The population is aging, with baby boomers reaching retirement age and fewer people joining the workforce. He said Alaska’s population is declining. Fewer people are leaving the state compared to 2020, but fewer people are moving in. Alaska depends on a large influx of non-resident workers, and there are not many. When the economy abroad is doing well, he said, fewer people come to Alaska to work.

“We always hear the story of employers not being able to find workers. But the flip side of that is that it’s the greatest time I’ve ever seen for job opportunities – quitting and changing jobs.

[Years after the pandemic forced many Alaskans to work from home, these employers are sticking with it]

Nolan Clauda, ​​executive director of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, interviewed stakeholders across the state about the job market. He’s heard that some people who quit work during the pandemic are not coming back because of virus concerns and childcare issues. There are fewer immigrant workers such as those with J-1 visas. He said the dynamics of the pandemic, especially for people in public jobs, weren’t great, and that encouraged people to change jobs. Studies show that more people are retiring and leaving their jobs for higher paying jobs.

“There were people who were close, who could retire but didn’t necessarily have to do otherwise, but the pandemic has made working a lot of jobs less fun, and people who are sensitive to health, or for whatever reason, have decided that this is the time. appropriate for retirement,” he said.

He said some people have changed industries, too. He said there is some evidence that some are retraining, although this has not led to increased enrollment in the Alaska university system. He said that people are more concerned than ever about the quality of their work environment, their benefits and their wages. Outside of Alaska, this has boosted union efforts in places like Starbucks and Amazon.

“Workers tend to realize that they have more bargaining power when it comes to employers, and that they can demand better wages,” he said. “If they don’t like their current job, there are a lot of other people who are hiring, and it might be a good time to make that leap.”

Working in a restaurant has stopped being fun

Garrett Martin, Spenard Joe's, Pandemic Stories

Just a few blocks from Strong’s new café location, you can often find Garrett Martin at Spenard Joe’s, a wall-mounted coffee cart he co-owns on Spenard Road. Garrett was a restaurant manager when the pandemic hit in March 2020. He’s in his mid-40s and has worked in restaurants for 25 years. He said a “perfect storm” of events had pushed him out of the industry.

[Why these workers from a popular Anchorage restaurant left a job they loved]

Even before the pandemic, he was feeling like he was getting old. The pace of work, which used to be fun, is not fun anymore. He wanted more time to make art and started thinking about how he would retire.

He was accustomed to the coffee cart in his neighborhood. It was put up for sale and decided to buy it with two partners. On the day the cart was opened, he was laid off from his restaurant job.

“I had a lot of fear about being self-employed, about making these kinds of changes from the restaurant industry,” he said. “I’m not sure if it wasn’t for the layoff I wouldn’t have had this payment.”

Garrett Martin, Spenard Joe's, Pandemic Stories

He said he did not want to go back to work at the restaurant. It’s a great job when you’re young, but it’s not a great place to get old and keep growing.

[’Burnout city’: The labor shortage has dragged on, and Alaska workers and business owners are exhausted]

“In restaurants there’s nowhere to go at a certain time, you can’t go up,” he said. “I’ve seen people waiting tables until they’re in their 60s or even 70s, and at the end of the road, some people just don’t have anything to show.”

Bus driving has become scary

After 20 years in the retail business, Beatrice Campbell began driving school buses for the Anchorage School District. She wasn’t expecting to love it when she started but she did. She’s driven for 16 years, mostly in South Anchorage off O’Malley Road

Pandemic stories

“When the pandemic hit, I was kind of cautious because I’m kind of a health risk,” she said. “I was scared or scared of COVID and being around kids, getting exposed in a closed bus.”

She said the work had taken an exhausting turn. There was a disagreement between co-workers and the families of the children I served over epidemiological precautions and she felt stuck in the middle.

“The protocol wasn’t really clear. Then I had opposition from people who didn’t believe they should wear a mask and didn’t believe they should be vaccinated,” she said.

[After two years, and against the odds, a downtown Anchorage restaurant returns to life]

This made her start thinking about retirement in late 2020. She was in her early 60s.

“I sat down and I understood the math and said, ‘You know, I can do this, I can do this and be fine,'” she said.

She was part of the union and when she got her start, she was eligible for benefits that new drivers don’t have right now. Those benefits, she said, made retirement easier. Union membership, which was mandatory, became optional. And no one wants to withdraw dues from their checks. She worries that wages and benefits for workers are not enough to maintain longevity. She said it was hard seeing the area’s problem finding drivers. She thought about going back, but she let her trade license lapse.

Pandemic stories

“It kind of heartaches me because I love my children and I get attached to them,” she said.

However, retirement has been complete so far.

“I have all that time to do gardening. I canned tomatoes. I have a greenhouse. I’m doing cider now,” she said.

I left last month to get my RV ready for a trip across the country.

Pandemic gave her a chance to stop

In the spring of 2020, 42-year-old Aubrey Watkins was working at Waldorf Small Nursery. The epidemic sent her home. Then the school closed. She decided to have her daughter homeschooled and stay away from the workforce for a while.

“It really gave me a good opportunity to sit back and stop for a bit,” she said.

Aubrey Watkins, Fire Island, Fire Island Bakery, Pandemic Stories

She worked as a waitress for years before she started working with children. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go back to that job. Nor did she want to go back to the classroom.

“I was like, you know, I love kids, I love my daughter. More than anything but I’m not just a teacher,” she said.

She used to do hobbies to keep busy at home. A little knitting, a little baking.

“I was like, you know, I’m going to bake some cookies. I’m going to bake a cake, another cake, a big birthday cake. I’m going to bake a wedding cake. One thing leads to another,” she said.

Aubrey Watkins, Fire Island, Fire Island Bakery, Pandemic Stories

She loved bread. I took a class of sourdough at Fire Island Bakery, which is when I learned the bakery was hiring. So I applied. She has been working there for a few months now and is grateful for the opportunity.

“The thing about it is that there is a lot of work out there. Honestly, if I had tried to apply on Fire Island before the pandemic, they wouldn’t have looked at me twice,” she said. “I have no background in cooking.”

Strong, of Bema Coffee, said he’s seen only a handful of apps that have come up recently and heard that other companies have done so as well. Maybe it’s a sign that some people, like Watkins, are going back to work. He likes to serve up breakfast burritos at the coffee shop and expand his busy salad business.

“With the workforce as they are,” he said. “I can only do what I can do.”

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