A new era for the Nome Job Center begins as Vickie Erickson retires
By Megan Gannon
Vickie Erickson’s career at the Nome Job Center has been bookended by periods of great change.
When she started 24 years ago, the office still had a physical job board that people seeking employment would come to inspect. Soon after, the office got hooked up to the internet and started putting everything online.
“It terrified me to have a computer that had internet,” Erickson recalled. “I’d never seen such an animal before!”
She had to adapt—and help job seekers adapt, too. Now, Erickson is retiring and passing the torch to her successor Dan Fishel, and she leaves amid another time of great upheaval in Alaska’s employment landscape.
For the majority of her career, Erickson was occupied with helping job-seekers find jobs, turning over every rock to look for opportunities. “I can remember when there weren’t really that many jobs,” she said.
But today she’s never seen so many job openings and employers are the ones who need major help finding workers. “We have tons and tons of work out there,” she said. “It is so hard to wrap my head around, truly, how many jobs we have.”
The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, or DOLWD for short, faces the same question that labor departments across the country are facing: Where are the workers? For communities as small and remote as Nome, the labor shortage is often felt more noticeably. One of the few restaurants in town may have to cut its hours. Housing contractors may struggle to keep up with the demand for construction work. A public school may have to close for a day because of a lack of employees and subs.
“Every time an employer closes their doors, there’s a service or a supply of some kind that’s going to be missing from the community at some level,” said Missy Lizotte, a Fairbanks-based DOLWD regional manager who oversees the Nome Job Center and others in the state. “We got our work cut out for us to try to help all these folks find the people they need to do the jobs that the people need done.”
For Erickson and her supervisors at DOLWD, explaining the labor shortage is not as simple as “nobody wants to work anymore.” Instead, they see a complicated constellation of factors that has led to the current situation.
“We have an aging workforce,” said Demetria Veasy, an assistant director of the department’s Division of Employment and Training Services, based in Anchorage. “We had this huge baby boomer population. They’re retiring, and a lot of those people retired earlier during the pandemic.”
Many boomers also retired with good enough benefits that they don’t need to work during their retirement, Veasy said, and now the next generation has a smaller pool of working-age people to draw from.
“I think we’re going to be in this space for quite some time where there are more jobs than there are workers because we have a smaller working-age population to work with right now,” Veasy said.
Lizotte said she saw others leaving Alaska’s workforce during the pandemic and figuring out alternative ways to survive—starting their own ice cream business or founding an online shop born out of a passion project or taking a remote job based out of state.
“I think that they have found other ways to make a living that they didn’t know they had,” Lizotte said.
On top of those factors, Alaska has lost the edge it once had in offering high wages. The state still has the eighth highest wages in the nation, according to a recent report from Neal Fried, a state economist, but the gap is getting narrower. In 2021, Alaska had an average wage of $30.52 per hour, compared to the national average of $28.01, Fried’s report found.
Veasy said on a recent trip to Chicago, she saw a sign outside of a McDonald’s advertising $22 per hour for workers. Meanwhile, an entry level job in the Anchorage Job Center starts at $23.12 per hour, she said. Government offices may have less wiggle room than private companies to set wages, but in general, if workplaces can’t compete at the wage-level anymore, they have to get more creative about other benefits they can sell to prospective employees—whether that’s good retirement benefits and generous vacation policies or simply an attractive office location, a nice team to work with or remote-work flexibility.
But sometimes those lures used to attract new hires or retain employees can have other ripple effects for the community. Erickson said she’s observed a recent trend in Nome that she hasn’t seen much in the past: “When people are moving away, they’re taking their jobs with them.”
She knows of people who live in Hawaii or Virginia or even Canada while keeping a Nome-based job that can be done remotely.
“They’ve kept their jobs because that employee doesn’t want to lose that person,” Erickson said.
And other employers, such as Norton Sound Health Corporation or Bering Air, are hiring employees who might only spend a few weeks or a month at a time in Nome, while having a home-base elsewhere.
“We’ve become so transient here over the past few years,” Erickson said. “People no longer buy a house here and raise their kids here because they can live in Georgia and fly back and work two weeks and then go home.”
Lizotte said that kind of arrangement can hurt the local economy: “Those are state dollars that are leaving the state and they’re not being spent here.”
At the same time, Erickson said she didn’t know what the solution to the increase in transience would be while Nome also suffers from a housing shortage.
Fishel said he was looking forward to building on Erickson’s legacy in his new role and is already thinking about how he can help employers think about how to better reach potential employees as he takes over.
“It’s easy for me to be innovative and have ideas when a base project is already there,” he said.
For example, each week Erickson went on air with KNOM to discuss five job vacancies in the region; Fishel plans to continue that tradition but he’d also like to get employers more involved in broadcasting those opportunities.
“I’m reaching out to employers right now to start doing an employer showcase, like a second radio show, where they can come in and make a sales pitch on why people should come work for their company, what their benefits are, the work environment etc., so the employers themselves are spreading more awareness about who they are and what they can provide job seekers,” Fishel said.