JUNEAU - The most recent Alaska labor statistics are sending a mixed message, with a hike in both the number of unemployed and the number of employed Alaskans, according to figures released Thursday.
While January's 7.9 percent unemployment rate is up 1.5 percent over January of last year, the number of payroll jobs also is up over the same period - by 5,200 jobs.
State labor department economist Dan Robinson said some of that growth - 1,200 jobs - is explained by the timing of the University of Alaska's pay schedule and the break between semesters, but overall it appeared the state is doing well compared to the rest of the nation, where job losses reached 3.6 million in January.
Robinson speculated that the growth was happening on the margins of the job market, since there are no major construction projects drawing workers to the state. Workers facing unemployment down south may be finding Alaska winters more attractive than in the past, he said.
"It doesn't take much," Robinson said. "A few more workers don't leave at the end of their seasonal employment or a few more workers from the Lower 48 states come up and pretty soon our rate is climbing."
However, he warned, the strong showing is surprising and job growth is expected to begin drying up. Just this week, ConocoPhillips and FedEx announced Alaska layoffs.
Robinson said the rising unemployment figures also show Alaska is not immune to the U.S. recession and global economic downturn.
One reason Alaska is faring better than other parts of the nation, Robinson said, is that it never had the kinds of manufacturing jobs that are the hardest hit. Meanwhile, the state's natural resource industry, including mining and oil and gas development, recorded 1,000 more jobs in January over last year.
"Even though the demand for oil has gone down, it will likely hold up better than things like auto manufacturing, which is where the nation has seen the biggest losses," Robinson said.