Faced with a potentially record tourist season, hotel companies in Alaska say they are struggling to find enough workers, even as they try to entice them with higher salary and bonuses.
Their struggle is part of the national pandemic-related labor shortage. But Alaskan employers face unique challenges, such as finding a massive and in-demand temporary workforce in the United States, industry watchers say.
As things stand, some Alaskan tour operators are facing the possibility of cutting hours, foregoing potential profits to avoid employee burnout while maintaining high quality, they said.
“Finding candidates, let alone qualified candidates, has been very difficult,” said Frankie Dashiell, co-owner of Alaska Trail Guides. “It definitely keeps us awake at night, that’s for sure.”
Demand for bookings is stronger than last year, when the cycle touring business had its best season, whipping tourists on the Anchorage Coastal Trail or on mountain bike rides.
But the company is short of van drivers and other needed workers, even after jostling most wages start at $17 an hour, about $7 more than Alaska’s minimum wage. They also receive bonuses and good advice, she said.
Unless things work out, she plans to cut touring hours by 50%. “We’re going to make it work, but it will be sad if we have to leave an opportunity on the table,” she said.
A record tourist season is looming
The tourist season is only a few weeks away.
Starting in late April, cruise lines are expected to fully return to Alaska for the first time since the pandemic began, with an unprecedented capacity of 1.5 million passengers. Airlines are also planning more flights to Alaska, with a record number of seats.
Alaska should benefit this summer from the factors that supported independent tourism last year, Visit Anchorage’s Jack Bonney said, referring to travelers to Alaska not bound by a cruise itinerary.
People still want to travel to less populated areas to feel safe during the pandemic, he said. And many Americans are stick to inner journeys.
“Alaska’s biggest competitor as a destination has been Europe,” he said. “But fewer people are going to Europe this year, whether it’s the war in Ukraine or the COVID protocols in different countries.”
Visit Anchorage and the Alaska Travel Industry Association are help market tourism businesses, including with more online job postings.
On May 9, major cruise ships will begin returning to south-central Alaska for the first time since 2019.
Holland America Line plans to reopen its 14-story Westmark hotel in downtown Anchorage on the same day, said Dave McGlothlin, the company’s vice president. It has been closed for two years.
Holland America, which also owns rail and coach operations in Alaska and hotels near Denali National Park and Preserve, is still trying to hire the roughly 3,000 summer workers it usually employs in Alaska, did he declare.
“I’m quite worried,” he said. “We will open the doors as planned, but we know we will be recruiting throughout the season, and that is not necessarily historical practice.”
“We’re giving housing incentives, we’ve increased seasonal wages, we’re giving longevity bonuses,” he said. “We put a lot of effort into it. It’s a kitchen sink approach.
Fewer returning workers
Grizzly’s Gifts store in downtown Anchorage has seven employees, a third of what it needs, owner Bob Neumann said.
“Our season starts in about two weeks, so it’s terrible,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
His pay starts at $15 an hour for inexperienced workers, like high schoolers, up 36% from 2019. “We go up from there for any experience, life story, time on the planet” , did he declare.
He is increasingly looking for Lower 48 workers, but that may mean providing housing, he said. During the offseason, he attempted to purchase housing near downtown to house 18 employees. He outbid.
Neumann also offers glacier cruises from Whittier with Phillips Cruises and Tours. It offers low-cost public housing there and has had no problem finding out-of-state workers, he said.
“It’s sad in a way, because we want to hire workers from Alaska,” he said.
Before the pandemic, tourism businesses in Alaska were able to rehire large numbers of returning workers each summer, tour operators said.
But businesses forced to close or scale back operations in the past two years have lost connection with many workers, they said.
Josh Howes, owner of Premier Alaska Tours, said his company has traditionally employed about 600 people each summer. Operations include shuttle cruise passengers in coaches and buses.
But Premier’s returning workers are down significantly as the business hasn’t operated much since 2019.
“We have a lot of people who have to start from scratch this year,” Howes said. “So we’re doing more training and getting people up to speed.”
He’s looking for about 30 employees who can get commercial driver’s licenses, to boost his driver count before things get really busy in June. They begin to $20 an hour with tip, up $4 since before the pandemic, he said
“We will continue to publicize it, work on it and spread the word,” he said.
The revival of the national economy does not help
COVID-19 has led to unprecedented layoffs and increased government assistance, helping to create a labor shortage as many Americans pursue new careers and better wages.
But Alaska, with huge seasonal fluctuations in employment, has exceptionally strong summer demand. for temporary out-of-state workers, say observers.
That demand comes at a tough time because the Lower 48 economy is recovering faster than Alaska’s economy, increasing competition for workers, said state economist Neal Fried.
“We had labor shortages before, like in the early days of the pipeline era (in the 1970s), but they were filled quickly because the rest of the country was in a recession,” Fried said. “That is not the case this year. We are in an environment that we have never seen before.
Thousands of Alaskans have also left the workforce during the pandemic, according to the state’s latest economic trends report. They’re likely retiring early, moving out of state, or still struggling to find child care, among other factors.
The US State Department’s J-1 Summer Work Travel cultural exchange program, once a reliable reservoir of foreign workers, has also not regain its pre-pandemic strength, employers said.
[Earlier coverage: Far fewer workers from abroad are in Alaska this summer, adding another challenge for employers]
The recently reopened Orso restaurant and sister property Glacier Brewhouse, both located in downtown Anchorage, typically employ more than 20 foreign workers, said Robert McCormick, owner of the restaurants.
This year, he is expected to receive 13, he said.
Potential participants pay to join the program, he said. Some don’t join because they’re afraid of losing that money if, for example, a new variant of COVID arises or the war in Ukraine expands, restricting travel, he said.
McCormick said Orso remained closed for two years due to labor shortages. It reopened last week but needs 20 more workers, he said. For now, it will operate five days a week instead of seven, until it is complete, he said.
The Glacier Brewhouse needs 40 additional staff, he said.
“Normally we would have a stack of apps,” he said. “We just don’t understand that.”
Restaurants increased back-of-the-house wages, such as offering $15 an hour for entry-level dishwashers, up $3 from 2019, he said. It also offers a $1,000 longevity bonus for these workers after six months, which attracts more applicants.
“I have confidence that we will eventually get to where we need to be,” he said.