My Turn: Jobs highest Murkowski priority

Posted: Tuesday, February 03, 2004

A television producer recently asked me a question. The answer seemed obvious until I gave it some thought: "What is it about having a job that is important to people?"

I learned something from a wise Tlingit lady when I was about eight years old. She said if we want to enjoy the good things of life we have to earn them. Sometimes payment is saying thanks. Other rewards may require tangible payment, for clothing, food and a home for our loved ones.

Jobs and economic development are the single highest priority in the Murkowski administration. The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development is working hard - and beginning to succeed - at building real action and support in response to the governor's call to increase resident Alaska hire.

I've known every Alaska governor since Bill Egan at statehood, but nobody sets the bar higher than this governor. He is asking industry, corporate and institutional leaders to pledge to hire resident Alaskans for 90 percent or more of their workforce. In setting a goal of 90 percent-plus, Governor Murkowski is emphasizing jobs that energize and reward the hard work and dreams of young Alaskans.

State labor researchers deal with a lot of statistics. For example, more than 369,000 men and women held private sector, state and local government jobs in Alaska in Fiscal Year 2001.

But about 68,000 - roughly 18 percent of all those jobs - were held by non-residents. That's unacceptable and way too many paychecks ending up south of Ketchikan. If we're really serious about achieving uninterrupted, long-term prosperity nothing is more important than keeping those family incomes in Alaska.

Early in the administration Governor Murkowski and I asked Commonwealth North to research and publish "Alaska's Jobs for Alaska's People," a report underwritten by BP Exploration with research by the Denali Commission. As we advance in the administration's second year I refer many times to that report, especially one statement that continues to be worrisome:

"In 2001, 68,000 non-resident workers held jobs vital to Alaska's economy and earned over $1 billion in wages. The lion's share of these wages went into the economies of the workers' home state."

Those numbers would be troubling if they represented a single year. They are more disturbing representing a condition over time.

Improving that equation is not easy. But we've got a good start. A couple of weeks ago I was proud to congratulate an outstanding Juneau business and Alaska success story for achieving the governor's 90 percent Alaska hire goal. In fact, the award recipient, the Alaskan Brewing Company, exceeds our 90 percent resident hire level.

When we talk about good jobs for Alaskans we want young Alaskans to be at the head of the hiring line. And more and better job training must be part of the equation as well.

With government, the educational community, industry and labor working together, we can train a workforce with skills competitive with or better than Outside. Sometimes, all we need is for government to raise the bar in terms of regulations and expectations.

If regulation is appropriate we won't hesitate. For example, the governor and I looked at state contracts and the construction trades. We declared the state of Alaska an official "Zone of Under-Employment" and now those contracts require that 90 percent of workers in some 15 construction crafts must be Alaska residents.

Governor Murkowski has it right: Alaskans need to rekindle the pioneering energy and can-do conviction that have always been part of the Alaska character. Hiring Alaskans is a solid investment, a sound business decision and it's the right thing to do.

• Greg O' Claray is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

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