Over the course of nine and a half hours on Tuesday, more than two dozen state and local experts from across industries united in seven panels to discuss how communities in western states can take advantage of their natural resources, as part of the Western Governors' Association workshop "Working Lands, Working Communities."

But what was perhaps the most illuminating panel of the day focused not on material resources, but human ones.

Nearly everyone can agree on the importance of developing strong local workforces, bringing  social and cultural value to communities while strengthening economies. But determining how communities can go about cultivating that local workforce — the subject of the workshop's panel on "Rural Workforce Capacity" — is a much more slippery task.

The panel

The panel, moderated by Dan Robinson, the chief of the Research and Analysis Office of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, was the second of the day. Three panelists joined him in the discussion: Sonya Skan, the education and training director for Ketchikan Indian Community; Michelle O'Brien, the executive director of the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce; and Mike Satre, the director of governmental affairs manager for Hecla Mining Inc., which operates the Greens Creek mine near Juneau and other mines in Idaho and Quebec.

The panel focused on the matter of local employment, and how rural communities like Ketchikan can develop a robust local workforce.

The Western Governors' Association comprises 19 states and three U.S. territories.

"At its core, the 'Working Lands, Working Communities' initiative is about the relationships between communities and their natural resources, and all of the complexity that comes along with that," explained Troy Timmons, a spokesman for the group, in a Friday phone call with the Daily News. “Every community in the west struggles with ... those same issues. So while … the Alaska workshop was very focused on Alaska, that’s fine, because those issues, the broader policy issues that we were discussing, there’s lessons there for every single state to learn from. They’re all the same issues that all of our states are struggling with.”

Utah and Colorado held 'Working Lands, Working Communities' workshops earlier this year.

Tuesday's workshop was recorded and posted to the association's website.

The benefits of local workers

The panel was unanimous in recognizing the value of a robust local workforce. Beyond the interpersonal and cultural value of hiring local workers, and their supporting the local economy by buying from local shops and supporting city and borough revenues through property and sales taxes, hiring locally tends to make business sense, too, Satre explained.

"We have a far lower turnover rate with Juneau-based and Southeast Alaska-based employees," he said. "Almost all of our Juneau folks, our Southeast Alaska folks ... tend to be there 10 or more years. They're long-term employees. They love Southeast Alaska. They want to be here. And so we save a considerable amount of money by not having to replace them and retrain their replacements each and every year."

"Decades ago," in the mine's early years (it's been operating for about 30 years, he said), it employed 220 people, about 200 of whom were locals. During that era, turnover rates were "maybe in the 8-10% range," he explained.

Today, he said, the mine employs about 450 employees, with roughly the same number of locals as years ago.

"What's happened over the years is we've had to become competitive in a global economy," Satre said. "There's global demand for miners, global demand for mechanics and millwrights. And to be competitive, we had to switch our schedules over time to get them to come work for us."

Consequently, Satre noted, "almost two years into the COVID pandemic, we're seeing higher turnover just like everybody else, but now we're pushing closer to 25% turnover at our Greens Creek mine. And a lot of that is due to, you have a very mobile workforce (that) doesn't live in the area that they work, and if the other operation is offering a little bit better schedule, little bit better pay, maybe a shorter plane flight commute, then it's a little bit easier for them to make that change and to walk away from what we're doing."

Skan agreed that turnover cost is an important reason to hire local workers.

"The turnover rate with the people that aren't from here is huge and it costs a lot of money to hire people," said Skan. "People don't realize how much that costs, especially if you're refilling a position multiple times a year or every year or every two year. It can be very cost-prohibitive for a company, ... especially if it's a small company where you have one or two employees."

Regional challenges

But rural Alaskan communities face extraordinary challenges in developing a local workforce, Robinson explained early in the meeting.

For one, Alaska has the most seasonal economy in the country, with about 15% more jobs in the peak of summer compared to the winter, he said. Even if every member of the community was employed in the winter, summer work would still outstrip the capacity of the local workforce.

"(We) also have the biggest migration flows — people who move to Alaska and move away from Alaska," Robinson added. "Second-biggest is Nevada, although Nevada, it's mostly 'in.' Alaska, it's strong 'in' and 'out,' and a little stronger 'out' in recent years than 'in.'"

Compounding that, many rural communities in Alaska, including in Southeast Alaska, are far more geographically isolated than rural communities in the rest of the United States.

"There's a great compare and contrast to our Lucky Friday operation in Idaho versus our Greens Creek operation here in Alaska," Satre explained. "Lucky Friday in Idaho is a classic mining district in the West. Yes, it's ... rural Idaho, but the interstate goes right past it; a town sprung up around the mine. We've been operating that mine for 60 years. It had a history much longer than that. We have generations of the same families that work at the Lucky Friday mine, and (some of) these folks can ... literally walk across the street and go to work.

"That's not the case in most of our resource opportunities in Alaska. We do have to go by air and by water," he continued. "At Greens Creek, ... you have to take a boat for 35 to 40 minutes every day, and then get on a set of buses that are another 45 minutes before you're at your workplace. So you do that the beginning of the day, and you do that at the end of the day."

And in recent years, Ketchikan specifically has been contending with vacancies in several administrative positions, as O'Brien pointed out. Over the next year, the City of Ketchikan will need to hire — and retain — a new police chief, fire chief, city manager, Port and Harbors director, Electric Division manager for KPU and telecommunications engineers.

"Historically, over the years, municipalities, in particular, the City of Ketchikan, have found it somewhat difficult, if not exceedingly difficult, to attract highly qualified professionals to a place like Ketchikan based on the wage that's being offered," she added.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly moved to remedy that challenge this year with pay adjustments for the borough manager and borough staff.

The pandemic

The pandemic made it clear how important a local workforce can be to a community's resilience.

O'Brien explained that COVID-19 made it "next to impossible" for tourism companies to plan their operations heading into 2021, when it was still unclear how much of a tourism season, if any, Ketchikan would see.

"The folks in the tourism industry, ... they plan ahead. They're bringing folks in (from out of town), they're also hiring locals months in advance. They also have the added challenge of finding those folks housing and setting up their business, placing their orders for the upcoming tourism season. They couldn't do that at all this year. It was next to impossible," she said. "Maybe a few key employees were brought up, but by and large, I would say the average that I heard was between two and three, maybe four key employees that a business brought in from outside of Ketchikan, which left the local population to staff this uncertain, 'Are we going to be open? When will we be open? How many people will we be open for?'"

In contrast to the beginning of the pandemic, "most of (the Chamber of Commerce's) members were clamoring for information and resources on how to either gather aid or get resources so that their businesses could actually make it through the pandemic," O'Brien said. "In the last three or four months, many of our members are now looking for information specific to this topic: 'Help! We need to find people to work for us!' And that's not just limited to retail or perhaps a place like The Landing hotel where we're at today. It's literally across the board. Everyone is looking for workers."

What occurred, she said, was that "Ketchikan became this hyperlocal workforce: People began, that I never heard of before, they would be having two and three different jobs. Other businesses were helping other businesses, staff, each other, just so that they could realize a little bit of revenue from what tourism season we did have."

Robinson responded: "Chaos creates opportunity, right?"

But the pandemic had the opposite effect at the mine, Satre said.

"As a result of COVID, we established a bubble at the mine. ... It turned that job, even for local workers, into extended shifts," he said. "Even if you lived in Juneau, you were still gone from your home for a couple of weeks at a time, and that's not something that necessarily that local workforce was looking for. And so folks had made some different decisions over time."

He clarified later in an email to the Daily News: "There were more than a few (local workers) that had selected Greens Creek as a place to work because it was not a camp job and they could return home every day. Once that changed during COVID, some decided to do other things. Thankfully we are now about 90% vaccinated and back to a daily commute so hopefully we will once again be attractive for residents as an employer."

Training a local workforce

Skan and Satre both spoke about their success with training programs as a method of helping to develop that local workforce

"Our goal is to find full-time employment for our tribal members, but we want to find it at a living wage, and that is something that's hard to do," Skan explained. "We all know that temporary employment sometimes can be easier found during the summer months when tourism is working and when tourism is happening. But even then, it's not a living wage. We know that living in Alaska, the living wage is upwards of $20 an hour, $21 to $25 an hour is about what you need to be able to survive and get possible housing and things like that — when the housing is available. Those are a few of the things that we struggle with."

"We would like to be able to break down those roadblocks and be able to open up the door for more people to get them working, to get them the training that they need and the education that they need or whatever it is that they need to fill those jobs that are available," she added.

During the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly's 2021 policy session in January, Borough Planning Director Richard Harney cited U.S. Census Bureau statistics that back up Skan's remark. For a Ketchikan worker to be able to live in a one-bedroom apartment here without spending more than 35% of household income on housing — the federal benchmark for "very cost-burdened" renting — that worker would need to earn $19.32 per hour. Other costs, including utilities, a wireless network, a phone plan, gas and car and health insurance, likely would increase that estimate.

"Training people is huge. And a lot of the trainings that we do, we open up for not just tribal members, but for everyone. And we will continue to do that," Skan continued. "I just really believe that, without partnerships, without working together, without having that unity of, we're all working together for the better good of not just Ketchikan, but all of Alaska and all of the West coast, ... Prince of Wales (Island), all of those sectors, ... we're not going to do well ourselves if we're not helping and partnering with each other."

Satre spoke about the differences between communities.

"The opportunity is not equal for every community in the region," Satre said. "Somebody who is ready to enter the workforce in Juneau may have very different skills and preparation than somebody who's ready to work and enter the workforce in Angoon, for example, ... the only village on Admiralty Island. In Angoon, what we've done is ... our Hecla Charitable Foundation with the National Forest Foundation matches the money to fund a Youth Conservation Corps and provide summer jobs in the Angoon area, primarily with wilderness stewardship.

"But there is no other economy there in (Angoon)," he continued. "These kids don't have the opportunity to get a job at the local T-shirt shop and service the tourist economy or work at a cannery or seafood processor. So a lot of what we've seen over the years, is folks may have wanted to work at the mine from there, but they didn't have the skills they needed just to be successful as a job applicant. So by investing at that early age, high school age, we're hoping to develop some long-term capacity there."

That ties into another Hecla initiative in Juneau, an introductory high school course that can be taken for college credit that "exposes (students) to a wide range of career opportunities in mining, whether that's being a cook for the camp contractor or being the engineer who's working underground and making things tick on the professional side," Satre explained.

Beyond that, he noted that Hecla has invested just over $1 million in the Mine Training Center at the University of Alaska Southeast's Juneau campus, which includes a specific focus on diesel mechanics.

"That's our area of greatest need. These folks are in demand around the world. If you are a trained certified diesel mechanic, you can basically write your ticket and do whatever you want to do. And ... we needed them," said Satre. "So we set up a two-year associate's degree program for diesel mechanics at the University of Alaska Southeast with a focus on mining and getting certified as an underground diesel mechanic."

Importantly, he said, that training isn't specific to mining.

"If economic factors changed and mining went away tomorrow, you wouldn't have necessarily a bunch of skilled miners who wouldn't have a job in their community, you have a bunch of skilled diesel mechanics who may be able to work in the commercial fishing fleet, may be able to work in the (Alaska) Marine Highway System, for the transport companies in town, ... or even they could work remotely on the North Slope or at another mining operation yet still live in Juneau," he said. "Having that regional capacity long-term was really important in our consideration of supporting that program, because we definitely want these people to work for us."

Hecla provides scholarships for that program, but its graduates aren't required to work for Hecla.

The program has helped the university as a whole, he added, by "building the enrollment at the University of Alaska Southeast and allowing them to keep their numbers as high as possible and provide a variety of opportunities for others — because once you have people in that AA program, they have to take the general educational requirements that are on our degree track," he said. "You support the entire system."

An investment of resources

Of course, training and community programs are most beneficial when they keep those skills in the community, as Skan explained.

"As a tribe, ... as the education and training department, we know that there's people that live here that are going to live here forever. They don't want to move. Like, my husband and I, we're going to be here. Our kids are going to be here. This is our home. And we don't plan on going anywhere," she said. "And so we know that whatever training or whatever investment that is put into people that are from the tribe or people that we work with or people that are from here, whatever investment you're putting into them, you're going to get that investment back out of them. ... Your investment's going to come back to you."

Robinson concurred, noting that Greens Creek sponsors sporting events in Juneau.

"If the businesses are in and out quick, if they're smash and grab, that's not what we're looking for as a state and as a local population," he said. "If it feels longer term, then you have time to build these relationships."

Housing

Housing — a perennial issue for Ketchikan and the U.S. — presents another obstacle to local workforce development, even for those working in the mining industry, Satre explained. (A pamphlet on the Hecla Greens Creek website states that the average employee salary there is $122,800.)

"From a mining industry perspective, we've always been at the higher end of wages, so affording it — what everyone considers to be an expensive home in Juneau or Southeast Alaska — has never been the question. It's been about the type and quality of housing," said Satre.

"If you're recruiting, say, a mining engineer from down south to come up to Alaska and to live there, raise their family in Juneau, be part of the school system, pay property tax, be part of the community," he continued, "they might've had 10 acres and nice big house and a shop down in Idaho, Nevada, Montana, wherever they were. And now, for that same price in Juneau, they're in an attached home with no yard and no access to recreation, no road access anywhere. Or if you were a Juneau resident who is new to the workforce, and all of a sudden you're making a mining wage, (you) realize, 'Jeez, I can move up to the Mat-Su Borough and go get a little piece of land, have had some road access to some recreational opportunities. And you know, it's a little drier up there than is in Juneau.' So you actually see some Juneau people, long-term Juneau families, moving out — thankfully, still to another Alaska community. But housing is what's driving them, and it's that availability of land and not to be squished in, because here in Southeast Alaska, we don't have a lot of private land. We are constrained by vital land access and road access out there."

Robinson backed up Satre's point.

"Mike mentioned the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. It's the one part of Alaska that has consistently grown for maybe the last three decades. The one. The only. What do they have that other parts of the state don't? Well, specifically, inexpensive housing, the space to expand. They tap into the Anchorage job market. Those workers work on the North Slope. Some of them fish, a lot of them commute to Anchorage," he said. "Housing really does matter."

That problem isn't exclusive to Alaska, either.

"Even in north Idaho, housing becomes an issue because there's a large influx of people into that area from other states," said Satre. "And it's now driving out, down the interstate into what were considered fairly rural communities in north Idaho. That housing market gets saturated, so it gets tougher and tougher to attract people to those areas and find places for them to live," Satre added.

O'Brien said that's why it's important to encourage development of borough and city lands. She said more property development on Gravina Island would help to alleviate that problem.

O'Brien also noted that the cost of an average home is $294 per square foot in Ketchikan — substantially lower than in Seattle, where the price per square foot ranges from $700 to $1,100; in Los Angeles, where it hangs around $600; and in Chicago, where it's about $400.

"If you're just look at bringing someone in from a Seattle or an LA to take a new health care position or a municipal position or whatever position that may be, it's actually quite affordable," she said. "It's different, but it's quite affordable. When I moved here, it was a little shocking. It was very different than my gated community golf course home in Tallahassee, Florida."

Reason for optimism

O'Brien found reason to be optimistic about Ketchikan's opportunities for growth.

Many Americans have reevaluated their lives mid-pandemic and are ready to uproot their lives and move, "and I think that a place like Alaska ... there's something very appealing that our communities can offer most definitely," O'Brien said. "Why not look at building the local workforce by bringing in talented people who would like to move to a place that's remote, like Ketchikan? ... There's a lot of folks in our community, in Ketchikan, that are exactly like that. ... People have moved in and become very positive forces in the community. So I think that's something that we can't discount."

She also said that some people in Ketchikan have been developing their own workforces by starting new businesses.

"It has been absolutely mind boggling to me to see the number of small businesses that have popped up in and around Ketchikan in the last year and a half, many of which have been started during the pandemic," such as Foraged and Found, and Ketchikan Evergreens, she said. "They're their own bosses, .... and they're doing exceedingly well, again, creating their own workforce."

'The greatest resource'

Skan argued that, ultimately, the strength of a local workforce comes down to the people it comprises.

"To me, ... human beings ... are the greatest resource. And realistically, we need to make everyone feel like that, whether they are at their lowest or at their highest, ... I want them to feel valuable," said Skan. "When we're talking about rural workforce capacity, rural workforce, building up our rural workforce, we have a lot of people that are at their very lowest. And right now, with everything that's happened in our economy, everything that's happened because of COVID, we have a lot of people that are hurting. We have a lot of people that have lost a lot. And if we're not helping them feel like they're important, like they have something to offer, then who is? As leaders and as people who have that ability, we have to draw that out. ... That's probably one of the most important things that we can do."