An op-ed by Bill Popp, President & CEO of Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
Earlier this month, AEDC shared our 2022 3-Year Outlook report, which forecasts what we expect for the next few years in our city’s economic landscape. Overall, we believe there is much to be optimistic about for the future of Anchorage, but we must be realistic about the types of investments and work that will be required to realize the brightest version of our future. That begins with a clear understanding of our current situation.
In 2022 we saw a 75% increase in new job postings during the first 6 months of the year compared to the average for the same period in the previous four years. In addition, Anchorage lost 15,000 working age adults between 2015 and 2021, and 34% of our 16 to 26 year old population is leaving our state for the lower 48. Our labor pool is shrinking while demand is growing. Naturally, population demographics and trends have a direct effect on the available labor force, but outmigration isn’t our only issue.
Across the U.S., the last 41 million baby boomers will reach full retirement age by 2030, and there are not anywhere near enough workers in the pipeline to replace this growing hole in the labor force. It’s clear we are not alone in these issues, but that means we are competing on a national scale for these workers, and even the retention of our own residents.
Some may assume our lack of available workers means that thousands of people are sitting at home playing video games and watching TV. We know this isn’t true, because Anchorage currently has a 79% labor force participation rate, much higher than the national rate of roughly 62%. However, there are those who are staying home because of a serious lack of affordable and available daycare, and there are those staying home for health reasons related to COVID.
So, what can be done? The good news is that we’re not starting from zero. Livability, a publication used to identify the best cities to live, work and play, recently shared that after researching over 2,300 cities for consideration in the 2022 Top 100 mid-sized cities in America to live, Anchorage was ranked the 23rd. In the end, we are competitive, and we have every reason to be optimistic about our future.
What will matter in addressing this challenge is how we as a city play the game to win the competition for workers. We are behind many other cities in the Lower 48 that have been upping their game over the last several years in efforts to attract and retain workforce. They’ve done this through a broad range of investments in quality of place projects including housing, public safety, education, and many other aspects that are now making them magnets for attracting and retaining workforce.
At our Economic Outlook Luncheon, we heard from destination development expert Roger Brooks, who shared his extensive assessment of Anchorage with actionable and simple, suggestions for competitive improvement. These suggestions included creating and installing more vehicular, pedestrian and trailside wayfinding signs; clear definition of districts and neighborhoods to create a sense of place and arrival (Mountain View is a great example of this); facade beautification that is as easy as setting a bench and a few planters outside a business’ front door; and reducing the number of ground-level parking lots taking up valuable real estate downtown. Roger’s full list of recommendations is available to anyone here.
While Brooks’ research was anecdotal and qualitative, we’ve also invested in quantitative research on our city. Earlier this year we engaged TIP strategies, an economic development consulting agency, to study industry and workforce clusters in Anchorage, assess the impacts of the pandemic on our economy, and identify imminent risks and challenges as well as opportunities for growth. Later this year we’ll share the results of their detailed analysis.
So, here are a few questions for all of us as citizens of Anchorage to answer. To ensure that Anchorage can grow its economy over the next decade and beyond, what strategies are we willing to develop and invest in to grow our labor force? What are we willing to do to keep more locally grown workers here in our city? What are we willing to do to attract the thousands of workers we need now and in the future that we can’t grow locally? Our future success as a city will be driven by our answers.