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Bill Popp: Alaska needs ‘outsiders' to secure a bright future

Bill Popp

In Alaska, it is easy to lose perspective. We all get lost in the grandeur of the place we live in. We view the outside world through the constrictive lens of what we see and hear on the 24-hour news channels or social media. We are confined by the sheer geography of Alaska that often separates us from each other in our individual cities, towns, or villages. This tends to distort how we view each other as well as the world outside of Alaska.

The risk of this loss of perspective is that it divides us in ways we don't even realize. Our geographic, political, economic and social distance from the Lower 48 often leads many Alaskans to think of our fellow Americans as "Outsiders" despite the fact that many of us were outsiders at some point in the past.

My family and I were some of those outsiders. We came to Alaska in 1968 when my dad was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base. And like many transplants, we fell in love with the Last Frontier and made it our home.

My family's story is like that of many others who chose to make Alaska their home over the last several decades, and like everyone else who chose this path, we now proudly call ourselves Alaskans.

This story has repeated itself countless times since statehood, whether through the thousands of ex-military troops and their families, the tens of thousands who flocked to Alaska seeking work during the 1970s pipeline boom days, or the thousands who have trickled into Alaska every year since the end of the great Alaska boom and bust of the 1980s. All have been drawn to Alaska for one reason or another, and Alaska is the better for it whether we want to admit it or not.

Much of what makes Alaska great today is due to the talent, abilities, experiences and perspectives these outsiders have brought with them over the years. Yes, there is always the risk that what makes Alaska special could be diluted by all of these outsiders. But shame on us if we let that happen by not welcoming these new Alaskans and teaching them what it is to be a true Alaskan.

We need these new Alaskans. Our economy demands it. "Alaskan jobs for Alaskans" is an easy tag line in our politics. But it doesn't take into account our serious need for skills and experience that we can't grow here in Alaska. There are only 730,000 of us living in the entire state today. We can't even begin to fill many of the skilled and semi-skilled professions in health care, accounting, oil and gas, mining, and myriad other jobs vital to maintaining our infrastructure and building our future.

We should give every willing and able Alaskan the educational and training opportunities they need to compete for the thousands of jobs created in the state every year. Investments in our schools, universities and training programs is a vital element in assuring the best odds of success for our citizens and economy now and in the future. Perhaps our new tagline should be "Alaskans trained to compete for the jobs they want."

We also need to learn from the lessons of the past. The trans-Alaska pipeline, the Cook Inlet and North Slope oilfields, our state-of-the-art health-care facilities, our robust city and state infrastructure, our telecommunications and broadband infrastructure were all were built in no small part because of the talents and abilities of the many outsiders who came to Alaska and contributed to their design, construction and operation.

Many in the baby boom generation are beginning to cash in their chips and leave the workforce to enjoy retirement. Experienced talent of all shapes and flavors is becoming harder and harder to compete for on a national global scale. Our sister states in the Lower 48 have figured this out and are aggressively competing for this ever-diminishing pool of talented and skilled workers.

We need to get in the game like we have in the past and figure out better ways to attract and retain talent here in Alaska. To advance Alaska's economy, to generate new economic opportunity now and in the future for all Alaskans, we need to have the best education and training programs in America. We can make all of those things happen, but we're going to need a lot more of those outsiders.

Bill Popp is the president and CEO of Anchorage Economic Development Corp. He has spent more than 40 years in the private and public sectors.

Bill Popp