Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Alaska had the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 6.7 percent – and the state still ranks among those with the highest unemployment rates today – and yet Alaskan industries struggle to find workers. This incongruity points to an often-understated aspect of Alaska’s total workforce picture. There are numerous well-paying jobs to be had – the more acute problem is a skills shortage amongst Alaskan workers. Alaska’s construction, Oil and Gas, Maritime, Mining and Healthcare industries, have for years been unable to find enough qualified Alaskan workers to meet demand. State economist Karinne Wiebold points out that more than 20 percent of nonresident workers make up the state’s construction sector and the Oil and Gas sector has had outsiders totaling nearly 30 percent of the workforce.27 The previous state Labor Commissioner Heidi Dreygas states the case plainly, “We have to invest in young Alaskans and in training, ensuring that we have Alaskans first in line to work in these jobs.”
A shocking 86 percent of Alaskan high school sophomores are non-proficient at the Algebra I/Advanced Arithmetic level. A recently completed ten-year study of University of Alaska’s entering freshmen shows that 60.8 percent require remedial math or English courses before they can move on to degree-credit coursework. Careers pathways are frustrated and delayed across the board when degree seekers realize basic deficiencies will prevent them from enrolling in intended courses of study.
Soft Skills – Get Up and Show Up
A fundamental problem has carried through the Alaskan school system and into the workforce that goes beyond math skills. Soft skills are “personable attributes that allow for effective interaction”; a good work ethic, communication, organization and cooperation are usually enumerated among the soft skills. The employer in search of good workers puts it more bluntly, Can you get up and show up? Incredibly, one in four Alaskan students are chronically absent – the third highest truancy percentage in the nation.30 Soft skills also include, basic computer proficiency, ability to be drug-free, safety awareness and ability to handle stress. Recognizing these skills as fundamental, Alaska’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) plan includes a soft skills curriculum, Skills to Pay the Bills, designed to redress what has proven a chronic weak spot in Alaska’s workforce.