Where are workers to fill all the empty jobs in Anchorage? It’s complicated.

By Julia O'Malley

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

“My only problem now is employees,” he said recently. “There’s absolutely no one to work.”

Strong also owns Sweet Caribou, the salad shop next door, and has been struggling with the labor shortage for years now. Early in the pandemic when businesses were limited by mandates and workers became eligible for enhanced unemployment, he thought no one was applying because they were making more money staying home. But those benefits ran out a long time ago. And the workers haven’t come back.

“I now believe there’s a lot of variables,” he said.

The labor shortage continues to burden employers in Anchorage and across the country, especially in retail, hospitality and food service. It’s also a fact of life for consumers who have become used to long drive-through lines, long waits and restaurants closing for two or more days a week. A lot of people are asking: where have the workers gone?

Sweet Caribou and Bema Coffee owner James Strong helps his staff with the lunch rush on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Strong was able to open his coffee shop, but is still looking for employees. Before he started Sweet Caribou, he was studying for a PhD in economics. He has a theory that more people have retired than before the pandemic. On top of that, people aren’t moving to Alaska like they once did. Some restaurant staff have switched to the burgeoning cannabis industry. There are also fewer workers from other countries, he said. Alaska economists who are studying the shortage say he’s not far off.

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

The state’s labor market problems fall in line with national trends, said Neal Fried, a state economist. The lack of workers may be a little more extreme right now in Alaska than Outside because of 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, he said. The state has low unemployment rates for Alaska, but that’s still a little higher than the national average.

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

Other factors are at plays as well, he said, including forces that were in motion before the pandemic. The population is aging, with boomers hitting retirement age and fewer people joining the workforce. Alaska’s population has also been falling, he said. Fewer people are leaving the state than in 2020, but fewer people are moving here. Alaska depends on a big inflow of non-resident workers, and there aren’t as many. When the economy Outside is doing well, fewer people come to Alaska for work, he said.

“We always hear the story about how employers can’t find workers. But the flip side of that is it’s the greatest time I’ve ever seen for job opportunities -- quitting, switching jobs,” he said.

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

Nolan Klouda, executive director at University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, has been interviewing stakeholders around the state about the labor market. He’s heard that some people who left work during the pandemic haven’t returned because of virus concerns and childcare issues. There are fewer immigrant workers like those holding J-1 visas. The dynamics of the pandemic, especially for people in public-facing jobs, weren’t great, and that encouraged people to switch jobs, he said. Studies show more people retired and left jobs for higher paying positions.

“There were people that were close, that could retire but wouldn’t have necessarily done it otherwise, but the pandemic made working a lot of jobs less pleasant and people with health sensitivity stuff, or whatever reason, decided it’s a good time to retire,” he said.

Some people also changed industries, he said. There’s some evidence that some are retraining, though that hasn’t bumped up enrollment in Alaska’s university system, he said. People are more interested than ever in the quality of their work environment, benefits and pay, he said. Outside of Alaska, that has fueled unionization efforts at places like Starbucks and Amazon.

“Workers are tending to realize that they have more negotiating power when it comes to employers, and that they can ask for better wages,” he said. " If they don’t like their current job, then there are a lot of other people that are hiring, and it’s maybe a good time to make that jump.”

Restaurant work quit being fun

Spenard Joe's co-owner Garrett Martin stands outside his coffee stand next to a mural he painted, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Just a few blocks from Strong’s new coffee shop location, you can often find Garrett Martin at Spenard Joe’s, a mural-covered 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 worked in restaurants for 25 years. “A perfect storm” of events led him out of the industry, he said.

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

Even before the pandemic, he’d been feeling like he was aging out. The pace of the work, which used to be fun, wasn’t as much fun anymore. And, he wanted more time to make art and was starting to think about how he’d retire.

He’d been a regular at the coffee cart in his neighborhood. It came up for sale and he decided to buy it with a couple of partners. The day the cart was set to open, he was laid off from his restaurant job.

“I had a lot of fear about being self-employed, about making those kinds of changes from the restaurant industry,” he said. “I’m not sure without being laid off I wouldn’t have had that push.”

Spenard Joe's co-owner Garrett Martin, right, works with barista Marissa Pedersen inside his coffee stand on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

He doesn’t want to go back to restaurant work, he said. It’s a great job when you’re young, but it’s not a great place to get older 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 point, you can’t move up,” he said. “I have seen people who wait tables until they are in their 60s or even 70s and at the end of the road some people don’t really have anything to show for it.”

Driving the bus got scary

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

Bea Campbell picks apples in her garden on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022 in Muldoon. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“When the pandemic hit, I was kind of leery because I’m kind of compromised with health issues,” she said. “I was afraid or scared of COVID and being around children, exposed in a closed bus.”

Work took a stressful turn, she said. There was disagreement among coworkers and the families of the children she served about pandemic precautions and she felt caught in the middle.

“The protocol wasn’t really clear. And then I had the opposition of people that didn’t believe that they should have to wear a mask and didn’t believe that they should be vaccinated,” she said.

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

And that made her start looking at retirement in late 2020. She was in her early 60s.

“I sat down and figured out the math on it and I 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 started her job, she was eligible for benefits that new drivers aren’t eligible for now. Those benefits made it easier to retire, she said. Union membership, which used to be mandatory, became optional. And nobody wants the dues taken out of their checks. She worries that the pay and benefits for workers aren’t enough to keep longevity. It has been hard to watch the district’s trouble with finding drivers, she said. She thought about going back, but she’d let her commercial license lapse.

Bea Campbell holds a jar of pickles on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022 at her home in Muldoon. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“It’s kind of heart wrenching for me because I love my kids and I get attached to them,” she said.

That said, retirement has so far been full.

“I have got all this time to do my gardening. I canned tomatoes. I have a greenhouse. I’m doing applesauce right now,” she said.

She left last month to get an RV ready for a cross-country trip.

pandemic gave her an opportunity to pause

In spring 2020, Aubry Watkins, who is 42, had been working at a small Waldorf preschool. The pandemic sent her home. And then school shut down. She decided to homeschool her daughter and stay out of the workforce for a while.

“That really gave me a good opportunity to sit and pause,” she said.

Aubry Watkins, right, laughs with Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop co-owner Rachel Pennington as Watkins prepares chocolate chip cookies on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

She’d been a bartender for years before starting work 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, and I love my daughter. More than anything but I’m just not a teacher,” she said.

She took up hobbies to keep busy at home. A little knitting, a little baking.

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

Aubry Watkins prepares chocolate chip cookies at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

She loved to bake. She took a sourdough class at Fire Island Bakery, and that’s when she learned the bakery was hiring. So she applied. She’s been working there for a few months and is grateful for the opportunity.

“The thing about it is there’s so much work out there. Honestly, had I tried to apply at Fire Island before the pandemic, they wouldn’t have looked twice at me,” she said. “I don’t have any culinary background.”

Strong, from Bema Coffee, said he’s seen just a few more applications come through lately and heard that other businesses have too. Maybe it’s a sign some people, like Watkins, are making the move back to work. He’d like to serve breakfast burritos at the coffee shop and expand his busy salad business.

“With the workforce the way it is,” he said. “I can only do what I can do.”

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