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May Unemployment Statistics Released

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development periodically releases statistics on unemployment across the state.  They’ve released the latest numbers for the month of May, revealing a mixed series of trends.  KDLG’s Chase Cavanaugh has more.   

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development has released its latest statistics on unemployment.  The seasonally adjusted statewide unemployment rate in May waas 6.4%, which remains unchanged from April, but one percentage point lower than the same time last year.  By comparison, the nationwide unemployment rate was 6.3% in May, unchanged from April, but down from 7.5% in May of last year. 

Seasonal adjustment takes into account the cyclical nature of certain industries, such as fishing, but the Department only makes these adjustments for the statewide rate.  When not seasonally adjusted, the statewide rate drops to 6.1% for May 2014, which is down .3 percentage points from April and .2 percentage points lower than the same time last year.   

The Southwest currently has the highest level of regional unemployment in the state, having risen from 13.2% in April to 13.8% in May.  By contrast, the region with the lowest unemployment rate is Anchorage/Mat-Su, hovering at around 5.2%.  

Caroline Schultz is an economist with Alaska’s Department of Labor.  She says within the Southwest, new fishing seasons contribute to lower unemployment rates. 

“In the salmon fishing areas everybody’s gearing up, Bristol Bay, Dillingham, Lincloln peninsula areas, those rates are starting to fall because people are getting ready for salmon season, so it’s kind of an interesting dynamic where rates are going up in some areas and down in other areas.”

Thanks to this phenomenon, the Bristol Bay Census Area’s jobless rate dropped from 7.3% in April to 2.8% in May.  The same trend occurred in the Lake and Peninsula Borough, with unemployment dropping from 9.9% in April to 6.6% in May, similar to the 6.9% in May of last year. 

At the same time, Schultz says winding down fishing seasons can have the opposite effect. 

“When we’re talking about our Aleutians East Borough, Aleutian Census Area, those are really dependent on the winter fisheries like pollock and, to a lesser extent, crab. This time of the year, after the end of the polluck season, unemployments are going up pretty quickly in those areas.”

In the Aleutians East Borough, the unemployment rate rose from 6.3% in April to 12.4% in May.  This is actually better than last May, where the rate was 19.1%.  The Aleutians West Census Area was also affected, with unemployment doubling from 6% in April to 12.4% in May.  

The rest of the Southwest remained relatively steady, with Bethel and Wade Hampton Census Areas having 15.3% and 23.3% May unemployment, respectively.  The Dillingham Census Area dropped slightly from 10% unemployment in April to 9.2% in May, comparable to last year’s numbers.  Schultz said this trend was typical. 

“The outlier’s kind of in southwest. They have a pretty steady seasonal rate because it’s consistently high all the time because their economic activity is pretty steady and low.”

As for Wade Hampton’s high unemployment rate of 23.3%, Schultz says it’s due to the lack of a traditional economy. 

“It used to be one of the most consistently highest unemployment rates in the country. Of course, that was before the great recession made a lot of other areas have Wade-Hamptonesque rates, but it’s really just a lack of a traditional market of economic activity in Wade-Hampton. With Bethel Census Area it at least has Bethel, which is the regional hub, and Wade-Hampton doesn’t have any communities in it that are even that big. There’s just not a ton of jobs there, the jobs that are available, there’s a lot of local government, some health care work, but we’re talking pretty small villages with not a lot of traditional market activity. People are staying very busy with subsistence work and other ways of generating revenue but not necessarily the traditional kind of employment.”

In total, these unemployment rates reflect approximately 22,000 people unemployed in Alaska out of a 367,000 person labor force.   For the Southwest, roughly 2,600 people are unemployed out of a labor force of approximately 17,600. 

Despite what may seem to be bleak numbers, Schultz says it’s not likely to get worse. 

“Our unemployment rate in May was 6.4%, which was unchanged from April’s level. That really characterizes what we’ve been seeing for the last couple years with our unemployment rate. Really, it’s stabilized. We’re pretty close, actually a little bit lower than our historical pre-recession 10-year average, so this is about as low as Alaska’s unemployment rate gets. I suspect, barring some kind of economic shock, this is where we’ll probably stay. We’ve really just stabilized at our natural rate of unemployment.”

May’s state unemployment data can be viewed in full on the website of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.