With a sharply truncated cruise season for large-deck cruises beginning near the end of July, tour companies are staffing up and readying for the influx of tourists to Southeast Alaska once again.
But where will they find people to fill positions that will only be open for about two months?
“We’ve been waiting for almost two years to be ready, and we will,” said Sierra Gadaire, operations manager for Gastineau Guiding, in a phone interview. “It’s good to shake off some of the dust and do something.”
Seasonal positions account for hundreds if not thousands of jobs across Southeast, according to state and regional data, existing only for three months out of the year on a typical year.
“It’s a challenge. It’s a good problem to have because it means business is starting again,” Zakary Kirkpatrick, director of marketing and public relations for Allen Marine Tours. “It’s been a 21-month drought for Allen Marine.”
[Visitor numbers rebound, but hotel vacancies remain high]
Kirkpatrick said the company is ready to get rolling, even with a shortened season. An active 2021 season, which looked uncertain until recently, will help set up tour companies like Allen for a successful 2022 season, Kirkpatrick said.
“Given the ship schedule, there’s still a lighter load as far as cruise ship deployment,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s kind of all hands on deck for hiring.”
Labor statisticians are unsure how the hiring process will manifest this year or what numbers of jobs will be created.
“It’s a little tricky to know what cruise ship season will do to employment,” said Dan Robinson, research chief at Alaska’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development. “All the news seems to be toward more opening up with surprisingly quick changes.”
Robinson predicts a “hybrid summer” with several developments toward renewed job growth in the second half of the season. He said that the labor situation will depend mainly on cruise ships and whether businesses that aren’t locally owned open.
Many companies prefer to hire locally, but the number of workers needed to pull the oars of the industry also requires a lot of out-of-state hires. TEMSCO is one of the companies that will be able to staff up to operating strength with local hires, said Craig Jennison, vice president of tours and marketing for TEMSCO Helicopters.
“If you asked me a month ago if we were gonna have any season at all, I’d’ve said no. Even an eight-week season has generated a lot of excitement here,” Jennison said. “We rely on local hires. That’s for our dock reps, receptions, flight following, glacier guides. That’s a pretty local force we use.”
For Allen, which requires hundreds of staff to staff boats and shoreside positions, the issue of housing — a perennial concern across the Southeast, rears its head.
“We’ve known about this, everyone knows about this: there’s housing issues. That always plays a factor in the recruiting process,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’re going to try and hire local; that’s always our preference as an Alaska Native-owned company.”
For places like Juneau, locally staffing positions may be easier than for smaller communities, Robinson said. Robinson said during a typical year, about 30% of the people staffing tourism-related businesses come from out of state to work during the summer season.
“In Juneau and Ketchikan, there may be enough local labor,” Robinson said, predicting that businesses with local ties will have an easier time finding staff.
TEMSCO’s maintenance staff are more permanent, Jennison said, experienced aircraft mechanics not generally being people that can be hired off the street. But for their dozens of local staff slots, they’re reaching out to previous seasonal employees to fill the roster. The fast-moving return of the cruise season also has them getting set for the brave new world of tourism in a post-pandemic era, and how to best serve guests in safety.
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out what kind of volume we’re going to have this summer. Every day we answer one question and generate six more questions,” Jennison said. “We’re doing an unofficial head count around town. I think we’ll be able to cover our bases fairly easily.”
By sea and by air
It’s not only personnel that companies need to sort: equipment mothballed needs to get spun up as well. Getting tour boats ready for operations isn’t as easy as starting a car, especially when a boat has been laid up for nearly two years, Kirkpatrick said.
“It’s all hands on deck for getting boats in the water, getting all that fine tuned,” Kirkpatrick said. “After such a long hiatus, it’s not as easy as flipping the switch.”
Allen is working with the Coast Guard to make sure all regulations are adhered to as they get the company’s more than 40 boats back in the water and running smoothly. The other side of their business, serving smaller deck cruise ships such as UnCruise , is already up and running, Kirkpatrick said.
While TEMSCO’s fleet of aircraft are in good shape after their annual winter maintenance season, Jennison said, but deciding how many aircraft to put in the air has ramifications for staffing. TEMSCO also made the decision to forgo staging and staffing dog sled camps on the ice, which requires substantial infrastructure, personnel, and not least, the dogs themselves.
“For every additional aircraft that’s three or four more support positions,” Jennison said. “We have a large group of seasonal pilots that we bring on every year.”
A season of scrimmages
For many companies, the idea of having any season with any hires is a huge plus, keeping staff current on working with the tour companies to put everyone in a better position for the 2022 season.
“Being shut down for two seasons in a row was definitely a cause for concern for next year. The opportunity to bring on people for a short season to maintain some continuity is one of the biggest positives for this,” Jennison said. “We rely on a good solid mix of experienced and new employees. The thought of having to start with a largely inexperienced crew was intimidating. We’re thrilled to have this as a springboard into next year.”
The rapid distribution of vaccines across the country and legislation allowing the large-deck cruise ships to bypass Canada’s closed harbors rapidly eliminated concerns that 2022 would happen, and in fact, that there would be a 2021 cruise season.
“If you rewind several months ago, there was plenty of talk about, is 2022 going to be a going concern? No one knew,” Kirkpatrick said. “Just the fact alone that we get a 2021 is really exciting, despite the challenges.”
Robinson predicted that the proposal to run cruises well into October — past the traditional end of the season—could add a wrinkle to the worker situation, as many college students return to school long before the season ends this year.
“We’re proud to support a lot of other local businesses. We work with local breweries. We sell local art or locally harvested products in our retail stores,” Kirkpatrick said. “To be able to support other local businesses is heartwarming.”
Robinson expressed surprise that demand for October cruises exists given the cold, dark and wet nature of Alaska’s autumn, but he takes a positive view on the prospect of late-season cruising.
“If it’s still 100 degrees in Phoenix, Alaska may still be magical, and the scenery never disappoints,” he said.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.