It is a big challenge, said Nelson San Juan, coordinator of seafood employment for the Alaska Department of Labor, trying to educate people on how they can work their way up in the industry, in positions starting perhaps on the slime line but leading eventually to management. They need to know there are different opportunities, and that most employers promote from within, he said.
Bristol Bay is a unique challenge because the period of real work is short, said John Garner, chief operating officer with North Pacific Seafoods. Still it’s not unusual in four to five weeks in Bristol Bay for some working long hours to gross $10,000.
The seafood industry competes for Alaska workers in summer with the construction, agriculture and tourism industries, he said. North Pacific Seafoods participates in job fairs in Alaska and has targeted western Alaska seeking processing workers, “but this isn’t a job for everybody,” he said. “It’s not a walk in the park.”
Veteran Bristol Bay harvester Robin Samuelsen of Dillingham said making it more attractive for workers to come to work in canneries, including better wages, is key.
“Offer them a good wage and show them that they will make income,” said Samuelsen, who is critical of processors who charge workers for room and board.
Every processing company has a different policy on room and board, however, and some said they rebate some or all of those costs to workers who complete the season.
Companies that rely on hiring a lot of foreign workers under the federal H-2B visa program, had a tough time this year because a previous exemption from the cap on temporary seasonal workers given for returning workers expired last year.
Brian Gannon, senior director of corporate relations for United Work and Travel, said that the Alaska seafood industry has been importing labor to Alaska to export fish out of the state for 130 years, to the benefit of local communities, fishermen, the state and processing companies.
“History will show that the next 20 years will be a race to see which companies can and will figure out the labor issue in Alaska, with or without the help from Washington DC and visa based labor programs,” he said.