OPINION: The problem holding back Alaska’s economic potential

Alaska has a workforce problem, and it is holding our economy back. It is easy to see in Anchorage, where businesses are competing for scarce workers in preparation for the summer tourist season. Workforce development also often focuses on the skilled trades, where there is discussion of how to meet existing industry demand. However, workforce development is not a video game where we produce exactly the units we need to do a finite number of tasks. Rather, we’re competing globally for investment in our city and state.

To win this competition, we need workers not only in skilled trades and seasonal businesses, but in business and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to attract new investment. These workers would make Alaska a more attractive place to start a business, and bring jobs and investment to our home. We can get these new workers from one of two ways: growing more of our own, or encouraging motivated and hardworking people to move here. Growing our own involves encouraging more Alaska families to have more kids and investing in them as they grow until they can join the workforce with an advanced degree, around 22 years from now. We should do that.

A more immediate source of workers to grow our local and state economy involves making it easier to move to the United States and encouraging more highly skilled workers to do so. These workers, whether born here or recent immigrants, help grow our economy and support national security through technological and scientific innovation. They also grow the economy by consuming goods and services, attracting new investment, and starting new businesses so that everyone else benefits as well. A larger STEM workforce also helps to protect our national security and make us more competitive against countries like China. With the global competitiveness race heating up, we need all the brainpower that we can get, including our foreign-born STEM advanced degree holders.

At the University of Alaska Anchorage where I teach, students from 89 different countries are pursuing an education. Studies show that the majority of international students would choose to pursue careers in America upon graduation if given the option, but many talented individuals are forced to leave due to outdated policies, instead sending them to our competitors. We invest in these students for years, and they grow to love Alaska. We should let them stay as new Alaskans.

The COMPETES Act passed the House in February and aims to help provide these students with the chance to remain in the United States. It also includes a foreign-born STEM provision that would increase opportunities for these skilled workers, keeping their talents here rather than sending them abroad.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan voted in favor of the Senate version of the bill with similar goals, but it does not include the STEM talent provision. Now, both chambers are generating a bill that mitigates these differences. When they do, our leaders should make sure the STEM provisions remain.

Kevin Berry is an associate professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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