Tourism workers begin annual migration

Posted: Monday, April 21, 2003

As the whales make their way toward Southeast Alaska from Hawaii this month, so do glacier trekking guides, helicopter pilots and boat captains from around the world.

"Pilots are kind of nomadic," said Tim McDonnell, vice president of tourism marketing with TEMSCO Helicopters. "They fly in Hawaii, then back in Alaska. They kind of move around with the business."

Juneau tour companies are gearing up for the summer season, tracking down employees who spent the off-season working or traveling in the Lower 48, and interviewing college and high school students from Juneau who will spend the summer booking tours and greeting visitors.

Many Juneau tourism companies hire locally, managers said.

"My whole staff here, apart from pilots, everybody else is a local hire," said McDonnell. "We have found that there is enough labor in this town."

NorthStar Trekking, a glacier guiding company based in Juneau, hires about three-quarters of its staff locally, said Melita Welling, ground operations manager. Like helicopter pilots, the other quarter of NorthStar employees often travel or work Outside during the off-season.

"Our guides mainly do something like work at Eaglecrest (Ski Area) in the wintertime," said Welling. "Or sometimes they just play. They'll end up climbing in South America or doing a summit attempt at some mountain around the world."

Most of the 12 captains at Allen Marine work in Juneau year-round, said Jim Collins, division manager of the Juneau branch. Those who don't, "follow the whales," and work in Hawaii or just travel, he said.

Often, seasonal employees are from Juneau but are college students outside of town for nine months of the year. Though they are in town only for a portion of the season, tour companies try to work around students' schedules.

"I love to accommodate college students in the tourism industry ... but you just have to kind of balance it," said Welling. The "juggling act" involves finding some college students who are off in May and can stay through August, and others who can start in June and leave at the end of September.

Hiring students at the University of Alaska Southeast can help alleviate some of the student scheduling problems, McDonnell said.

"The kids that go to school here will come work for us on weekends and come work one or two days a week," he said.

Seasonal employees are not limited to students and nomads, though, said Kirby Day of Princess Tours.

"We have between 80 and 90 drivers, and that ranges from college students to retired folks in town, teachers, firemen, people that work for the school district and state and work for us on weekends, and school bus drivers that move over and drive for us in the summer," Day said.

Some drivers for Princess Tours have worked for the company for eight or nine years, Day said. Almost 98 percent of Princess Tours' workers are local.

"The reason it's not 100 percent is as the industry has grown in town, and as more companies have a need to hire folks, obviously it drains on the pool here in town," Day said.

Unemployment in Alaska traditionally declines every month from March to August, due to more available jobs in tourism, construction and fishing, said Department of Labor economist Dan Robinson.

In 2002, the number of people employed in the hospitality industry in Alaska increased from 24,000 to 35,000 from January to June, Robinson said.

Christine Schmid can be reached at

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