Oil and gas industry jobless claims up for seventh straight month

Jobless benefits claims are down in Alaska and across the country, but the same cannot be said for the state's oil and gas sector.

The lack of available work has boosted the number of former workers in the extraction and support industries who have filed for unemployment, according to the state labor department.

Year-on-year increases in existing unemployment insurance claims by laid-off oil and gas workers began in May 2015, about one year after oil prices began falling. In November, 895 former workers in the sector were receiving jobless benefits, up from 463 for the same month in 2014.

"Certainly these are significant numbers," said Lennon Weller, an economist at the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. "Oil and gas claims are trending higher and that is certainly something to keep an eye on as we move on into 2016."

Joey Crum, president and CEO of Northern Industrial Training, noted that industry requests for regulatory and safety training for new hires have been slower. The Anchorage-based company also provides vocational courses and certification programs for welders, truck drivers and other oil and gas industry support workers.

"We expect to see some of those who have been laid off come in after the first of the year once we see what the winter drilling season is going to look like," Crum said. "We know it's going to be slower, but will it still be good? That's what we're holding our breath for."

Weller noted that the number of claimants within the oil and gas industry and overall is low today compared to the period from 2008-2013 when special state and federal unemployment programs were in effect to address high jobless rates during and after the global financial crisis. Those programs were discontinued in 2013, leading to a drop in the number of people claiming benefits, Weller said.

There's also a healthier labor market nationwide, retirements among baby boomers and a subset of people who stayed on the jobless rolls and never went back to work, meaning they could not qualify for new rounds of benefits, he said.

The changing labor economy has led to unemployment claims falling in Alaska and the U.S. overall. In October, the number of people filing for jobless benefits nationwide hit a 42-year low. The available data for Alaska shows a steady decline in claims from a recent peak in 2010, when the state was still feeling the effects of the national recession. Benefits claims for Alaska totaled 72,922 that year, compared to 49,826 in 2014.