Loss of construction, Crossings and Trident jobs adds up for Wrangell

Two key economic indicators are falling in Wrangell—the unemployment rate, and the number of people in the labor force.

Combined, the two datapoints help explain the ongoing worker shortage in the community, stressing out business owners who have to manage as best as they can with too few employees.

The unemployment rate for May was 5.1%, down from 5.5% in April, down from 7.2% a year ago, and the lowest in at least the past 12 years, according to state Labor Department statistics.

It’s probably the lowest rate going back 20 years or so, but Wrangell and Petersburg used to be lumped together for the statistic, making comparisons harder.

The state reports the labor force in Wrangell in May at 1,022 people, with just 52 classified as unemployed — defined by the U.S. Labor Department as people “who don’t have a job but are available for work and have looked for work in the past four weeks.”

That number is the lowest in the community in at least a dozen years.

The U.S. Census Bureau and the Alaska Department of Labor both say Wrangell lost population over the past decade, though the numbers don’t match the reality that housing remains extremely tight in town and the number of Permanent Fund dividend applications with a Wrangell address has slid by only a few dozen in the past decade.

The 2020 census count, released last year, said the community lost 242 residents, about 11% of its population, between 2010 and 2020, going from 2,369 to 2,127 residents. The state said Wrangell’s population loss was even steeper, down 14% from July 2011 to July 2021 estimates, falling from 2,412 to 2,096.

Though the borough believes the state and federal population estimates are wrong, the labor force, as reported last month by the Alaska Department of Labor, shows Wrangell’s available workforce in May is down by about 80 to 90 people since highs in 2019, 2014 and 2013.

Some of the shrinkage in jobs is due to the lack of large construction projects, said Carol Rushmore, the borough’s economic development director. SEARHC completed construction of its new $30 million medical center early last year; work had started in 2019. And the local workforce expanded during Evergreen Road and Shoemaker Harbor construction projects in 2018-2019, she said.

In January of this year, SEARHC closed down Alaska Crossings, its wilderness therapy program for at-risk children that the health care provider had taken over in 2017. At the time of the shutdown, which SEARHC said it decided for economic reasons, Crossings had 16 employees in Wrangell. The operation added 25 seasonal employees last summer.

The closure of the Trident Seafoods plant the past three summers also has hit the community’s job prospects and tax revenues. The Seattle-based processor has said chum runs have been too weak to justify running the plant.

“They have assured us that they are not looking to dispose of that plant,” Rushmore said last week. Reopening just depends on stronger salmon returns, she said.

Wrangell is not alone in the state in its continuing struggle to add jobs — and fill the jobs already in the community. More people have moved out of Alaska than have moved into the state in each of the past nine years, according to the Labor Department.

“This is a trend independent of the pandemic, but a harsh reality to confront when thinking about workforce availability — and economic opportunity more generally,” Nolan Klouda, executive director at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, wrote in an opinion column published in the Anchorage Daily News last weekend.

“Business expansion can’t happen without workers, and a shortage of human capital might be Alaska’s most pressing economic constraint,” Klouda wrote.


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