OPINION: Alaska isn’t competitive in attracting young professionals

Alaska’s population is shrinking because Alaska is not attracting young people like it used to. People choose where to live for a variety of reasons — family, amenities, money and education among others. Alaska has great outdoor amenities, and people may still live in the state for family reasons, but Alaska’s economy has been stagnant for more than a decade. Real gross domestic product, which controls for inflation, is now comparable to 2006 levels. Pre-pandemic, real GDP had fallen back to 2010 levels. The stagnation in Alaska was driven by oil price declines but was exacerbated by the difficulties Alaska faces in investing in Alaska. The rest of the U.S. does not suffer from the same malaise, and our young people have noticed.

Our schools face major challenges in funding capital budgets while also covering operating costs. The school district in our largest city cannot provide buses to every school and is considering school closures. Child care is expensive and difficult to find, punishing parents who attempt to return to work and forcing low-income families to decide between working to pay for child care, or leaving the labor force to avoid child care bills. State and local agencies are subject to unpredictable budgets that are detached from the demand for services because state revenues are tied to the stock market and oil prices, not the population or economic activity.

Alaska is losing the competition to attract entrepreneurial, motivated young people. If nothing changes, we will continue to lose young Alaskans to the Lower 48 and fail to attract new workers to the state. This has led to a situation where economic recovery is hamstrung by labor shortages that are exacerbated by our demographic challenges.

Things don’t have to be this way. Alaska can retain and attract workers, entrepreneurs and doers to the state. This involves continuing to build and revitalize institutions that enable and encourage people to live and work in Alaska. The state can expand investments in child care to stabilize the industry and help make child care affordable, accessible and high quality. The state can bring together builders, residents and policymakers to explore how to allow municipalities to be more flexible with zoning reforms and other regulations that make it easier to build housing. The state can invest in infrastructure that helps diversify the economy by providing the needed base for expanded tourism, resource development and a service economy. And the state can come up with a fiscal plan that allows it to provide a stable base of services for a growing population including quality education for every student at every level. These things require a plan, and we should be asking our leaders to tell us how they expect to get Alaska moving forward. Then we need to give them the resources to act on their plans.

The motto “North to the Future” is a call to Alaskans and outsiders to a land of opportunity and promise. It’s a rallying cry to build a state where our outcomes are determined by effort and merit. We should remember that building a state is a community endeavor that requires we work together, and that investment today will build a stronger Alaska tomorrow.

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

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