Is there really a shortage of jobs?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - 13:41

I’m sure today’s job market for young people is more competitive than back in my day. But Anchorage and its environs are a lot bigger now and it seems there would be more jobs available.

I took a lot of part-time and temporary jobs before, during and after college, some of which weren’t very pleasant. It seemed like a long time before I settled into a long-term career in Alaska’s oil industry. I sometimes wonder if young people today are willing to walk before they run--in other words-- take lesser jobs before finding their chosen careers.

When asked for a dollar by a group of well-dressed teenagers at McDonald’s in Houston, Texas several years ago, I told them to “go get a job.” The incident reminded me that my first real job was at nine years old, when I and a few other children painted a house exterior in Seward. The home was owned by one of the town’s grade school teachers. It was actually whitewash and we all ended up whiter than the house.

I’ve been working ever since. My parents always worked hard and told me that all work is respectable — that there is no work beneath any of us.

Before graduating from high school, I was a grounds attendant (fancy term for lawn mower) at a bank; a part-time apprentice for an Anchorage architect, a delivery driver for an engineering supply firm and a laborer/ assistant at the Alaska Disaster Office.

Just after graduation from high school, I was hired by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) as a seasonal worker, mainly counting fish. I continued working seasonally with ADF&G for seven years.

While in college I had a short gig at the campus radio station, but was fired because I didn’t stick to their music playlist. For a while I played electric piano in a rock and roll band.

After dropping out of college in 1965 — not my smartest move — I discovered what the real world of work can be like.

For about a year I worked for the City of Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department, primarily flooding ice rinks and helping build greenhouses. One winter I drove a dump truck for snow removal. I spent part of one very cold winter in Anchorage hanging off the back of garbage truck with the unceremonious job title: “swamper.” Either I was good at my job or I looked pathetic, because people along the route were always proffering gifts.

I also worked as a laborer on construction projects. One of the hardest jobs I can recall was stocking 12-foot lengths of sheetrock, two to a bundle, which sometimes required going up stairs. On that job it was really important to have a sturdy person on the other end.

I worked on the ramp at Anchorage International Airport for two different airlines, and for months — the longest duration anyone out there could remember — I had the dubious distinction of taking care of the honey bucket. In winter, that involved taking a heater out to the aircraft and thawing the outlets to the lavatories. When it thawed, I connected a hose and drained all of the contents into a tank. It often dripped on me. You can imagine how I smelled. My roommate was a ticket agent and had lots of dates with flight attendants and others, while I had very few.

For a while I was a furniture mover in Fairbanks. All of the men with whom I worked had bad backs and it didn’t take me long to understand why. In addition to pianos, one of the military’s favorite items was chest freezers filled with meat, always in the basement of their houses.

One summer I was the contract custodian of Harding Lake campground, located about 50 miles south of Fairbanks. Closer to Anchorage, I worked for the State Division of Parks on Nancy Lake campground improvements. My parents had a cabin at Nancy Lake and I can remember hours and hours of work during the long summer days.

Before returning to college and acquiring a degree in journalism, I was a bartender at the Clear radar site; worked in a cannery in Kodiak, took a short job moving vending machines around Anchorage and performed some janitorial work.

At the University of Alaska- Fairbanks (UAF), I was a reporter for the campus newspaper. I was nearly fired after botching an investigative assignment to delve into cost overruns on the university’s capital expansion project. Instead of exposing financial incompetence, I became friends with the president and we emerged from the interview laughing and shaking hands.

After receiving a degree in journalism in 1974, I finally began to zero in on what I wanted to do for the long haul. I became involved with Alaska’s oil and gas industry---beginning with Bechtel, Inc. in setting up pipeline camps and building the haul road to Prudhoe Bay. (Later it was named the Dalton Highway).

During Trans Alaska pipeline construction (1975-77), I worked as a writer for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. In 1978, I took a temporary job with Exxon writing advertisements. That same year I was hired by BP in their public affairs department. Over a span of about 30 years with BP, I was involved in community and media relations and internal communications, primarily as a writer.

The point of this endless litany of jobs is that outside of my chosen career field, journalism, I had no special skills or qualifications. I doubt that I was qualified for 10 percent of the jobs I landed. I was fortunate, however, to always have good health and an abundance of energy. But as I look back, the main driver was that I liked to work and make money. I thought there was something wrong if I wasn’t working.

Again, I don’t know how competitive the job market is today and how much more selective employers are. I do remember fighting my way around unions. I finally joined the Teamsters in the late 1960s so I could move furniture.

I also recall that my job searches were much more personal and direct than today’s long-distance, cyber-application process. I telephoned often and even visited offices and other job sites without invitation. I think they sometimes hired me just to stop my incessant pestering.

But I have to go back to my mom. She didn’t have a college education, but could go anywhere and find a job. “Show them confidence that you can do the job,” she used to say. “Then after you get the job, learn how to do it really well.”

It’s easy to wax cynical with the old saw: “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” I had some help along the way by my parents and friends, but it usually came down to how earnestly I wanted to find a job and once landed, how much effort I put into it.

I’ve been told that because of the economy, older adults are now taking most of the jobs I held as an 18-year-old and into my early 20s. Perhaps it is harder for young people today to find good-paying jobs on their way up. My hope is that somewhere along the line they have learned that hard work bestows great rewards, and generally, those who work the hardest get the farthest.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank regarding this or other Mountain Echoes columns, e-mail him at [email protected].

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