Not your typical analyst

State economist always draws a substantial crowd

Posted: Monday, January 09, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Neal Fried isn't your typical economist. While his signature bow tie screams "geeky numbers guy," Fried is one of the most sought-after analysts by public and private figures who want to know anything about the state's economy and its labor issues.

He is upfront and knowledgeable, and presents information - data that many would consider almost mind-numbing - in an understandable, even entertaining manner. He's been known to try to find correlation between economic good fortune and alcohol sales or the number of trucks sold in the state.

He holds up Ouija boards and crystal balls to show crowds how he determines economic forecasts, and during those long-ago years where the state was in an economic spiral, he brought out a coffin to use as a visual aid.

Fried began working for the state Department of Labor in the fall of 1978 - he drove a school bus to his job interview - and received the job offer on his birthday that year. As a labor economist, Fried looks at employment numbers to find trends and to make educated guesses on what those trends may mean to the state's future economy.

Born in Washington, D.C., Fried's family moved to Vienna, Austria, when he was 6 years old, after his father got a job with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The fourth of five boys, Fried and his brothers spent their childhood in an atmosphere that opened their eyes to the world. They attended an international school that represented students from 60 different countries. Fried learned to speak German, and spent a year in Rome at a Catholic boarding school.

"It was easy to grow up there," he said. "But I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I should have."

After he graduated school, he spent a summer in Israel, and then headed to Alaska.

"There's no great story as to why I came to Alaska," he said. "I had an end-of-the-road thing, where I wanted to get as far away as possible from civilization."

He had received a brochure from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and thought the area was pretty and the tuition was affordable. He enrolled as a history major, but soon realized he'd have a tough time getting a job, so he entered into economics, getting dual bachelor's degrees.

After his first semester, he went away for the Christmas break and almost didn't come back. "It was certainly a culture shock," he said.

That was 1973. Fried returned to Fairbanks, learned to bundle up and finished school. He came to appreciate the city's bustling atmosphere during the oil pipeline pre-construction era.

"I didn't know the pipeline was about to be built, that's how ignorant I had been," he said. "There was this huge boom in Fairbanks and I thought it was wonderful, that it was always like this. I didn't realize till much later, after I became an economist, how unusual that was."

During his years at the labor department, Fried has seen the gamut of the state's economy, from the boom years of the pipeline to the bust days of the oil plunge. Nowadays, as the state completes its 18th year of consecutive growth, he has to look a little deeper for changes and trends.

"In the old days, you'd see changes in six months," he said. "Now, it might take five years to notice. Now, we dig deeper, look in places we might not have looked before. The steady growth has been a Railbelt story, and not necessarily the story of everywhere in the state. The rural story is much different than the statewide story."

Annual presentations relaying this economic information are given at a handful of chambers of commerce, rotary clubs, schools and to just about any other organization that asks him to come. "I have a hard time saying no," he said.

While the methods used in these presentations have changed with technology - going from the paper flip-charts to transparencies and then to Power Point presentations - the overall message hasn't changed that much, especially during the latest steady growth period, he said. So he has to find ways to entice people to listen.

During a presentation to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce in December, one line chart showed incremental job growth and the next showed declining oil production.

"I know what you're all thinking: the declining oil production is good for the economy," he told the chamber. After the chuckles died down, he explained that the economy was up despite the fact that oil was down, and why.

"Maybe I'm more conscious of getting the message across," he said. "The numbers speak for themselves and a lot of people understand them, but for those people who don't, you have to find ways to make it more interesting so they will listen to you for more than three minutes."

Looking at the numbers for the past 30 years gives the economist a historical perspective, as well. "Sometimes it's too much history," he said. "I look around now and there's these 20- to 30-year-olds in the audience, and they don't give a damn what happened 30 years ago. I have to catch myself more often so I don't spend too much time on past trends."

While his confidence and historical perspectives have helped greatly with trends and analysis, Fried is still uncomfortable guessing what the near future might bring.

"Everything we do here relates to employment, the trends that have and are occurring in the labor market, and the trends we expect to happen," he said. "It's nerve-wracking to look at the next couple of years because people remember that. Looking farther into the future is more fun and is less risky, because people forget it."

Fried got his first public speaking experiences as a tour bus guide in Fairbanks. Tourists had already seen moose and bears during their trip, they were more interested in knowing tidbits about how Alaskans lived and what the rent was on an old territorial log cabin, he said.

"I wanted tips, so I learned to make it fun," he said. "I realized how you say it is as important as what you say. Maybe I'm continuing to be a tour guide for Alaska's economy."

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