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Nonprofits see worker shortage

Organizations worry new big box stores may be diluting Juneau's employee pool

Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2007

Several nonprofits providing services to people with disabilities in Juneau are beginning to feel an employee shortage.

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"It's the worst I've seen," said Kim Champney, support services program director for REACH.

With 15 caregiver positions open, Champney is becoming increasingly alarmed. She has no applicants to call upon.

REACH employees provide disabled clients levels of assistance ranging from a few hours helping with meals, to around the clock service.

Walter Majoros, executive director of Juneau Youth Services, is seeing the same problem within his organization. JYS provides care to children and teens with mental health and chemical dependency issues.

Finding employees to provide the level of care required has been difficult for employers in the nonprofit, noncertified fields of healthcare.

"It's not like before. There is a shortage for sure." Majoros said.

JYS has seen a steady increase in open positions from 4 percent in July 2005 to 10 percent this month.

REACH's pool of workers dried up this summer, and Champney wonders where they've gone.

"We've always had a pile of applications to choose from," she said.

The June unemployment rate for Juneau was set at 4.4 percent, up from a several-year low of 3.7 percent in May.

Dan Robinson, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the demand for employees in Juneau is quite high at the moment.

Both Majoros and Champney figure their labor shortage coincides with the opening of two box stores this summer.

Robinson said the amount of available employees required by the stores would stress the Juneau's labor market. He said anecdotal evidence shows the box stores suffering too.

The duties of retail employees and caregivers differ immensely, but both draw from the same employee demographic. Champney is looking for high school graduates or people with a GED, ages 18 and older, who are starting life and can work for $13.50 an hour. The difference is that REACH employees must pass a background check, and most need a car; they need to have good judgment and be comfortable with people with disabilities.

According to Majoros, that "starter employee" is disappearing in Juneau. "Thirty years ago, 20- to 30-year-olds were the largest demographic in Juneau," he said. "Now it's the smallest."

Robinson said an employment pendulum exists in Juneau, and younger workers leave when the economy looks better elsewhere. "We tend to loose them to the Lower 48," he said.

There is another reason jobs go unfilled. Majoros' program has doubled in size going from a staff of 80 to 160 in five years.

"We're recruiting in the Lower 48," Majoros said.

JYS also is offering hiring bonuses.

More money seems to be out of the question. Majoros said he ran the numbers on a 50 cent raise for his entire staff and found that his budget would require an additional $200,000 annually.

REACH cannot compete with JYS in the recruitment effort. There is no money for relocation, and it's hard to get people to move so far for the pay, Champney said. To compensate, she's now looking to the retired.

"Maybe they want to work a few hours a day or a few days a week," she said.

The effect of the worker shortage is simple: People in need of services go without. Champney has prioritized her staff for those who can't make do without help, and JYS has empty beds that could otherwise be filled.

This fall, the JYS BASE program at Juneau-Douglas High School, offering in-school day treatment, has six vacancies.

"That's 30 kids not receiving services," said Majoros. "The wait list for services is increasing."

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258, or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com



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