Business/Economy

Alaska seafood industry faces challenges beyond harvest cuts: its workforce

Amid ongoing declines of salmon returns, restrictions on harvest and collapsing groundfish stocks, Alaska seafood industry experts are concerned about something else too: the workforce.

The Alaska seafood workforce, both on boats and on shore, is aging, and fewer young people are going into careers in the industry. While the graying of the fishing fleet is in part because of the high cost of entry for permits, boats and equipment, there is also a looming shortage in processing plant workers.

Jay Stinson, president of the Alaska Research Consortium, a research organization supporting fisheries and marine science in the North Pacific, told the House Fisheries Committee on Jan. 23 that about 75 percent of the state’s manufacturing workforce is in the seafood industry. However, those workplaces are changing from what they were a few decades ago, when unskilled labor dominated.

“(Processors are) moving from the old slime line, which was unskilled labor, to a technical skill set requiring computer sciences, robotic operators and programmers, maintenance people, things like that,” he said. “Those skill sets are in really big demand, but there’s no place in the state to get that training.”

While the University of Alaska has some courses in fisheries technology and skill sets that would be useful to processors, there is no training program that specifically focuses on those skills as related to the seafood industry.

A survey of 40 plant managers from 20 different companies the Alaska Research Consortium conducted showed significant interest in more training opportunities for seafood-related careers, said Paula Cullenberg, the executive director of the Alaska Research Consortium.

The survey respondents noted the need for skills like math and English proficiency, but also supervisory skills, conflict management and developing future leaders. While many employees get some level of training, some also get training in technical operations like boiler operation, wastewater management, quality control and commercial driving, Cullenberg said.

Companies often bear the cost of training individuals currently, she said.

“Training provides the opportunity for folks to make a career out of that industry,” she said.

In addition to improving existing training opportunities and connecting seafood processing plants with their local high schools as potential internship or employment opportunities—Cullenberg told the House Fisheries Committee that fewer than half of the plants surveyed have a relationship with their local high schools, but that there is a lot of interest; the Alaska Research Consortium is proposing a Seafood Workforce Training Partnership.

The partnership would exist to promote training opportunities for Alaska residents and expose high school students to careers in the industry, based out of the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center.

To get it started, the consortium is looking to Technical Vocational Education Program funds. The program, housed in the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, provides noncompetitive education grants for workforce reeducation, paid for by a tax on the wages employees are required to contribute to unemployment insurance. TVEP was created initially in 2000 and provides grants to organizations like Ilisagvik College and the Alaska Technical Center.

According to information the Alaska Research Consortium provided the House Fisheries Committee, the average annual contribution from employees in seafood processing and packaging to the TVEP program is about $600,000 annually.

“We think TVEP resources are a good way to get it started and moving forward,” Cullenberg said.

Kodiak in crosshairs

Kodiak as a community is deeply connected to the seafood industry; in addition to being the third-largest port for commercial fishing landings in the United States by volume, the archipelago is home to the popular Kodiak Crab Festival and ComFish Alaska each year. Beyond the direct jobs in the fishing industry, the spending and wages in that industry create other jobs in the economy.

But in recent years, the fishing fleet there has seen a number of its major fisheries reduced or closed entirely. Halibut fishermen have watched catch limits decline over the past decade along with the biomass; herring fisheries have dropped; this year brought a complete closure to the 2020 Pacific cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska; and crab fisheries have been closed or significantly scaled back over time.

Salmon has been a reliable standby, with millions of the fish returning to the rivers and streams of Kodiak each summer, but the season is short and the runs can be unpredictable. The Board of Fisheries also recently changed two management plans that shift sockeye salmon fishing opportunities away from Kodiak in Cape Igvak and in the Katmai and Alinchak areas along the mainland Alaska Peninsula, cutting into the sockeye salmon fishery from the island.

“What’s happening in Kodiak … is that you have a cascading chain of events that is creating increased pressure or diminishing opportunity for resident workers,” said Duncan Fields, the chairman of the Kodiak Salmon Workgroup and a member of the Alaska Research Consortium board. “We have seen the downturn of a number of fisheries. So it’s cumulative impact.”

As those fisheries decline, so may jobs for processing plant workers. Over time, with reductions in hours and opportunities, families with long histories in processing jobs have not been able to make it anymore, Fields said; Kodiak has been gradually losing population over the course of the last decade.

Fields said the estimated economic loss with the two sockeye fishery changes would be between $2 million and $3 million on the island. However, it doesn’t mean there’s no demand for plant workers, and especially for skilled workers, he said.

The newer plants in particular have fewer manual jobs and more computerization, particularly on heavy equipment like canning machines. While some training can be done on the job, processing companies are interested in having skilled people who are willing to stay over time, he said.

“It’s difficult to recruit and train and currently, the processing companies themselves are bearing most of the cost of training men and women to be part of the seafood industry,” he said. “I believe it’s a wonderful industry; I believe it’s a great career path for people.”

The ARC program would be based in Kodiak and would be focused primarily on training residents, but nonresidents would be able to apply, Fields said.

House Fisheries Chairman Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said at the opening of the meeting that she would be interested in securing annual funding for the program proposed by the consortium.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at elizabethearl@gmail.com.

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