For the first time in about two decades, the annual Southeast “By The Numbers” report from Juneau-based research firm Sheinberg Associates gave a somewhat rosy picture of the region’s economy.
Meilani Schijvens was one of a group from Sheinberg Associates that took a detailed look at Southeast Alaska’s economy and population over the past five years. She presented some of the study’s findings last week during Southeast Conference in Craig.
“For the last 15-20 years, we’ve been getting up in front of you to convey rather depressing numbers,” she said. “We’ve tried to put a good spin on them, and focus on the successes, but the late ‘90s and early 2000s were tough years for Southeast Alaska.”
In the late 1990s, fishing and timber were in decline, and populations throughout the region fell by 10 percent on average, not including Juneau. Now, however, “I’m excited to tell you that we are indeed starting in on a new book of the Southeast Alaska economic history,” she said. “Population is up, employment is up, wages are up, more specifically, state and local government jobs are up; health care and mining jobs are up; seafood statistics are way up thanks to a banner seafood year in 2011; home values are up and metal prices continue to skyrocket.”
Over the last five years, there were a few decreases, Schijvens reports, which do cancel out some of the good news. Those are the visitor industry, federal government jobs and new home construction. Of those, only federal employment continued to decline over the past 12 to 18 months.
Schijvens says federal employment likely will stay on that downward path through the end of the year.
As the name of her company’s report indicates, Schijven’s presentation contained a lot of numbers. Most of them are positive, though, so it’s pleasant to pay attention and follow along.
“Mining employment in the region was up by 58 percent over five years ago, and that’s really good for the region when you consider that the average wage in the mining industry is 2.5 times that of the average private sector wage in the region, so we like our mining jobs,” she said. “In 2011 there were 100 more mining jobs than in 2010, and preliminary data for 2012 suggests that employment in the mining industry is going to increase another 150 jobs to 200 jobs in 2012 alone.”
That growth has been spurred by high prices for metal, such as gold. Schijvens says she believes the price of gold will hit $2,000 an ounce in the next year.
Another area that has seen growth is the region’s health care system, which provides about 9 percent of the jobs in Southeast Alaska. The population is aging, in part because of a low birth rate in Southeast. However, people are moving here, and in fairly large numbers.
“Now, this is actually what I think is the most exciting story of the five-year overview. Over the past three years, Southeast Alaska has grown by 2,300 people, actually over the last five years. That’s an increase of 3 percent,” she said. “The 2011 population of Southeast Alaska was 73,526. What I think is really interesting is that in 2011, Southeast Alaska was the fastest growing region of all of Alaska.”
Schijvens says most of that growth is due primarily to young, single, highly educated people choosing to move to Southeast. About a third come from other parts of Alaska, about half are from Down South and others have moved from foreign countries.
Will the upward trend continue? Schijvens says it can, but only if Southeast continues to attract and, more important, retain these newcomers. She says the high cost, and low availability of affordable rental housing is a continuing problem that communities need to address.
Looking to the future, Schijvens has some pretty good news.
“In 2012, Southeast Alaska will hit a new population record, finally surpassing our 1997 peak. In 2012, Southeast Alaska will hit a new employment record, surpassing our 2006 peak. In 2012, Southeast Alaska will have the highest average total wages, even adjusted for inflation,” she said. “These are the three most important indicators for measuring a growing economy, and it means Southeast Alaska is headed in a very good direction.”
Also following the numbers theme, Jim Calvin of the McDowell Group gave a presentation at Southeast Conference about the Southeast Alaska modeling project, which will take millions of pieces of data to come up with a model that shows what makes the region’s economy tick.
The project was introduced at last year’s Southeast Conference in Ketchikan, and Calvin says it will take about 100 hours of professional labor to complete. While the project isn’t done, Calvin had some numbers to share.
“This wouldn’t be a McDowell Group presentation if we didn’t have a few numbers,” he said. “So I’ll give you a sample of the kind of information that’s buried in all of this data set. These are the kinds of things you can impress your friends and neighbors with. Regarding the Southeast Alaska economy, did you know that we have workplace-related earnings of $2.2 billion and total personal income in Southeast Alaska of $3.4 billion. We have total value-added of $3.9 billion and our regional economy has a total output of $6.2 billion. So there’s a few factoids for you.”
Calvin says the modeling project is about a third of the way complete. Among other uses, when done, it will provide economic information for specific towns, rather than just boroughs or census areas.
Southeast Conference is a regional economic development organization. It formed in 1958, and includes representatives from Southeast Alaska communities and business interests.