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Are Alaskans lazy? Or is this what work-life balance looks like?

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 19
  • Published July 19

After my column about how the oil era weakened Alaska's business competitiveness, I got more agreement than I expected.

"You gave language to the culture of mediocrity and lack of ambition that has always bothered me," wrote one businessperson, who complained of difficulty hiring sharp employees and a lack of intellectual stimulation here.

He didn't want to be named, for obvious reasons, but I got in touch with half a dozen high-performing workers with experience both within and outside Alaska. They confirmed that Alaska is different.

Whether that is a good or bad thing is a matter of perspective.

In general, they said, work intensity is lower here and off-work activities like fishing and skiing take higher priority. The isolation of our market shields some industries from competition and change.

Alaska's small size and slower pace puts a ceiling on many careers. Those who love Alaska and won't leave bump up against the ceiling and can stay in jobs for life. That denies advancement to younger people. The truly ambitious leave.

On the other hand, Alaska's small size allows young people to gain broad experience rapidly, which can translate into leapfrogging into higher career levels elsewhere.

"If you're pretty talented, up here you're really talented," said Jessica Pezak. "You can come here from out of state and everything is a lot slower, people are a lot more casual, and there's a lot less follow-up and follow-through, and you realize that compared to out of state, you can just be average and move up really fast."

Anchorage resident Jessica Pezak is an Alaska representative for Expedia and related companies. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Pezak makes hotel deals for Expedia as the company's only employee in Alaska. She came from New York.

Like everyone I spoke to for this column, Pezak emphasized she spoke only for herself, not her company. All also said Alaska has plenty of examples of high business competitiveness and excellence.

Pezak enjoys the Alaska lifestyle. When we met at an Anchorage coffee shop, she was just back from a few sunny days on the Kenai Peninsula. That's the flip side of the trade-off.

Pezak said Alaskans tend to choose lower work intensity and higher life intensity. She's OK with that. Even my anonymous businessman agreed that the Alaska lifestyle is better for mental health than the work-all-the-time culture on the East Coast.

Peter Prokein had that conversation with an IT leader before he left Alaska.

"They said they only have the job to get gas for their boat. And they meant it," Prokein said. "The job was just a way to get compensation for the things they truly value. And for me, there's nothing wrong with that. And that's why you live in Alaska rather than work at Google."

Prokein enjoyed his 14 years climbing from student to senior IT worker at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His met his best boss there. But his career stalled, so he left. Now he works for Google in Mountain View, California.

No Alaska employer can match the salary, benefits, intellectual stimulation or advancement of Google. And Prokein doesn't work long hours. He said Google hires smart people to find simple solutions.

"There are no slackers here. Slackers cannot exist. You will be found out, and then you will be helped," Prokein said.

Ben Kellie made an opposite transition. He grew up in Alaska, left to engineer and build rocket launch pads at SpaceX, then returned to start a company working with drones.

Ben Kellie works at the Boardroom in downtown Anchorage, Jan. 5, 2018. Kellie returned to Alaska from work launching rockets for SpaceX to begin a company serving rural Alaska with drones. (Charles Wohlforth / ADN)

He said he no longer works every waking hour, as he did at SpaceX. He takes time to enjoy the outdoors. But his team at K2 Dronotics is intense and smart and the company is growing fast.

"At SpaceX all you do is work. I think you can get a better balance here," Kellie said. "My personal life experience is we're working just as much but we're enjoying it more."

Young people who have worked outside Alaska come back with an advantage. That was Ky Holland's story. Holland returned 20 years ago from working at fast-growing businesses on the West Coast, where he reveled in the taut competition and fiery ambition.

"When I came up to Alaska, it was like everything came to almost a standstill with that desire to grow the business, and reach out, and try to create new competitive offerings," Holland said. He remembers agreeing with the phrase "comfortable mediocrity."

"I've kind of tempered my perspective on that over time," he added.

Holland now works as technology commercialization officer for University of Alaska Fairbanks and mentors local startups. He has come to appreciate the need for Alaska businesses to build on Alaska opportunities within Alaska culture.

Kari Skinner said she and her husband traded an unlimited career ladder for Alaska's qualities, including the connection with community, "really great" public schools, and ways to grow outside of work. She is vice president of marketing and communications director at Northrim Bank.

Skinner said she works as hard now as she did at Overstock.com — and she sees lots of talented people at other businesses — but work isn't everything.

"That was really the driver to coming back," she said. "Alaska is really a unique place in that respect, because you have an opportunity to be in this close community, but you can get into big jobs."

[Weigh in: Have you worked outside and within Alaska? What differences did you see? Tell our columnist by email at cwohlforth@adn.com. Responses may be used in the ADN.]

But what about choices for kids who grow up in Alaska and don't leave? They deserve opportunities.

"The key to realizing there are other options is good education," Pezak said. "I wonder how many people grow up here and don't realize what other roads they could take."

The issue also affects our future economy. In the knowledge economy, you have to compete with everyone on Earth, without barriers. Alaska lacks the time zone and higher education system to join that race, and also, perhaps most importantly, the culture. You've got to want it.

"I don't know what the future will be here. I imagine it will be pretty much the same," Pezak said. "I think the reason it will not change here is because the people are not going change."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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