JUNEAU -- For the last five and a half years it's been easier to get a job in Alaska than in the Lower 48. Historically, that's unusual. Unprecedented, actually, and economists said it couldn't last.
It didn't. In April, the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 6.3 percent, just below Alaska's 6.4 percent for the first time since November 2009.
State labor economist Dan Robinson calls that a "return to normalcy."
For most of Alaska's history, including every month of the previous 25 years, Alaska's unemployment rate lingered above the national rate. Since the nationwide recession hit several years ago, far harder down south than in Alaska, the U.S. unemployment rate has remained 1 to 2 percentage points higher than Alaska's.
A report issued Friday by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development's Research and Analysis Section documented the change back to the historic norm, said Robinson, chief of the section.
Alaska's 'economic drivers were fine'
That shows some of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of the Alaska economy, he said.
"All of our state-specific economic drivers were fine," he said. The oil industry saw profits and hiring climb, the fishing industry saw overall strong harvests and prices, and mineral prices remained strong despite the recession.
That meant that the downturn that hammered most of the Lower 48 was barely noticeable in much of Alaska. The national unemployment rate reached 10 percent in 2009, while the Alaska rate peaked at 8.2 percent.
The only year in which Alaska lost jobs was 2009, and that was the first year that had happened in more than two decades.
"By the next year, we'd recovered all the jobs we'd just lost, and the nation still hasn't," Robinson said.
Alaska wasn't immune from the recession, however, with tourism in particular suffering, he said. "Tourism took a hit because national and international demand is part of that," he said.
Travelers in general were less willing to take spendy cruises, and the ones drawn by discounted staterooms often didn't spend much extra. Instead of a pricey flightseeing tour, visitors might take a hike on a trail, he said.
Alaskans also pulled in their spending, but because many were still employed they didn't stop entirely. That kept the state's economy chugging along.
"Nationally, construction and manufacturing took a whack, but we didn't have much speculative building, and we didn't lose those construction jobs, and we don't have the kind of manufacturing jobs that were lost -- cars and the big stuff," he said.
Most of Alaska's manufacturing jobs are concentrated in seafood processing, and that's a much different manufacturing job than working at General Motors.
Even while Alaska lost its advantage over the national economy, the state's economy is still improving, just at a slower rate than country's, Robinson said.
April's Alaska unemployment rate of 6.4 percent is down from March's 6.6 percent, while the national rate for April was 6.3 percent, down from 6.7 percent. All the numbers are seasonally adjusted.
The year-over-year change was even more dramatic, with Alaska holding steady at 6.4 percent for both years while the national rate of 6.3 percent was down dramatically from 7.5 percent in April 2013. The April numbers are all preliminary and may be revised.
Tourist season brings jobs
Alaska is continuing to add jobs. The biggest monthly gains were in Southeast, which is gearing up for the tourist season.
The popular cruise ship port of Skagway has the biggest change in the unemployment rate, falling from 21.6 percent to 13.1 percent. The North Slope Borough's unemployment rate of 4 percent was the lowest in the state. Those numbers are not seasonally adjusted.
Only one region, Aleutians West, saw an increase in unemployment, reflecting the end of the winter pollock season.
The statewide nonseasonally adjusted rate for Alaska was 6.5 percent, while Anchorage's rate was 5.0 percent, Fairbanks was 5.5 percent and Juneau was 4.6 percent.
Robinson noted that the size of Alaska's workforce grew during the recession as some unemployed workers headed north.
"Whenever there's a recession down there and things are positive here, we have net migration," he said.
"It wasn't so much that we were attracting people here because we didn't have a booming job market. But if you lost your job here, you were much more likely to stick around and look for another job," Robinson said.
"When during the good times you might have gone to Seattle, California or Oregon, those were the places that were hit the hardest (by unemployment)," he said.
Reach Pat Forgey at pat@ alaskadispatch.com.
By PAT FORGEY