Health care jobs took the lead in Southeast Alaska’s private-sector economy in 2020, report says

Former Bartlett Regional Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Rose Lawhorne walks through a newly converted spillover facility designed to house COVID-19 patients on Monday, April 7, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Health care became the largest private sector wage provider in Southeast Alaska in 2020, surpassing both the seafood and tourism industries.

Melani  Schijvens is the director of Rain Coast Data and the former director of the Southeast Conference. She delivered her annual Southeast By The Numbers report to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 6.

Much of the information — such as job loss in the visitor industry — was expected, but health care taking the top spot came as something of a surprise.

“Health care in Southeast Alaska, especially in Sitka, has just been really dominant as becoming the most critical part of our economy in 2020,” said Schijvens. “It sort of became our economic leader.”

According to the report, health care jobs accounted for 12% of all wages in Southeast Alaska in 2020. That’s despite a drop of about 150 health care jobs in Southeast last year.

Schijvens says health care has been on a national growth trend that has created a demand for workers and increased their wages.

“Even before the pandemic we didn’t have enough health care workers nationally,” Schijvens said. “And so what you see in Southeast Alaska and Alaska and other places in the U.S. is this increase in wages as we’re trying to attract and retain healthcare workers when there’s a lot of competition for a too small of a resource.”

It’s not just wages that’s driving growth. There’s also infrastructure.

“So in Juneau, we are building a $14 million behavioral health building. In Sitka, you just voted yesterday to make it a sale to SEARHC which is going to result in a $38 million, 25-bed critical care services building. In Wrangell, SEARHC has recently built a new $30 million critical access hospital. And in Petersburg, they are assessing building a new $80 million hospital,” said Schijvens said. “So we’re seeing real investments into healthcare infrastructure across the region.”

Schijvens said that Southeast Alaska has had different private-sector leaders over the years, with timber at the top of the list in the 1990s, seafood in the 2000s, and tourism after that.

Throughout the decades, local, state and federal government remained the top employers in the region.

Editor’s note: The photo caption in this story has been updated to reflect Rose Lawhorne is the former chief nursing officer at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

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