KENAI - With the commercial fishing season beginning in Cook Inlet, Kenai Peninsula processors are worried they won't be able to handle the flow of fish because of a shortage of workers.
Last week, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development sent out an alert that the state's seafood industry needs workers immediately. It listed about 700 vacancies, roughly half of them on the Kenai Peninsula and the other half in Southeast Alaska.
Last summer, some central peninsula canneries were so short of workers they ran only one shift instead of the normal two. This year, with more fish anticipated, they are scrambling to build crews.
"It has been getting worse for the last three years or so," said Donna Allen, personnel manager at Inlet Salmon in Kenai. "We probably have half as many as we need."
With the stronger economy in other parts of the nation and a weaker, shorter fish processing season in Alaska, the state is no longer attracting as many migrant seasonal workers. Processors are staffing their plants instead with local high school students.
The starting pay is $7 per hour, but workers get time and a half for overtime, which is frequent in the industry. Some get bonuses for experience or staying for the entire season.
The work is physically demanding and the shifts are long, but in a good season it can be quite profitable to work on "the slime line."
Ken Sirois, who handles fisheries jobs for the state job service office in Kenai, says the worker shortage is a problem both statewide and on the peninsula. About 380 Southeast jobs were listed by the state, including 30 in Juneau.
Pacific Star in Kenai pursues a strategy of offering early work and employee amenities such as a cafeteria. Those perks have allowed the plant to avoid shortages, at least so far, said Pacific Star plant manager Rob Wiskerchen.
Allen of Inlet Salmon said her plant could use 100 more workers, with perhaps another 50 to 100 more for the company's Kasilof facility.
"We definitely need people," she said.
The company has taken the unusual step of inviting foreign workers. It gave them documentation promising them jobs so they could get the proper work permits.
"We don't normally sponsor them," she said.
Allen said the situation now is far different from the days when processing seasons involved numerous seafood species and stretched from March to October.
In those days, people flocked to the processors from all over the world looking for summer jobs, and the companies had their pick of workers.
"We don't turn away anyone anymore," she said.