Anyone thinking of moving to Alaska  to get rich is in for a rude awakening. For a number of years after the oil boom, Alaskans earned the most per capita of any state, but now Alaska ranks 33rd for income—and near the top for cost of living. The state’s unemployment figures are usually several percentage points above the national average, even during the peak summer season.
Despite this, you can still come to Alaska and make a decent living; after all, most Alaskans came from somewhere else (only a third of Alaskans were born in the state—the second-lowest such percentage in the country). But the opportunities, it should be stressed, are limited. For example, almost a third of the people collecting a paycheck in Alaska work for federal, state, or local government. And the industry that accounts for 87 percent of state revenues (oil and gas) accounts for just 3 percent of employment. The real growth of late has come at the bottom end, in service jobs and retail sales, where your income would probably leave you officially listed with poverty status. So if a job as a Wal-Mart stocker is your dream, hop on the next flight to Anchorage .
For employment information, visit the Alaska Department of Labor’s Job Bank (www.jobs.state.ak.us ), with an up-to-date listing of openings around the state. Here you’ll find details on jobs in all sectors, including seasonal cannery work, state positions, and relocation information.
Alaska ’s fisheries account for over half of the country’s commercial fish production. Three-quarters of the value is in groundfish (pollock and cod) and salmon, the rest in shellfish, halibut, herring, and others. Alaska produces almost all of the U.S. canned-salmon stock (200 million pounds), and eight Alaskan ports are among the country’s top 50 producers, with Dutch Harbor/Unalaska almost always in the top three, and Kodiak not far behind.
Alaska’s fisheries are probably the most carefully managed in the country, with healthy stocks of wild salmon and halibut. Fish farming is illegal in Alaska, but farmed salmon from other areas flooded the market in the 1990s. Since then, there has been resurgence in demand for high-quality Alaskan wild salmon as consumers see problems caused by the farm-raised version—not to mention the difference in taste.
Learn more about Alaska’s seafood industry (and get some good salmon and halibut recipes) from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (www.alaskaseafood.org ).
The percentage of Alaska ’s land used for farming is as minuscule as the percentage of Alaska’s total economy that is accounted for by agriculture. Of the state’s 375 million acres (17 million of it suitable for farming), only 910,000 acres are considered cultivable; of those, only 31,000 acres are occupied by crops. The Matanuska Valley (Palmer  and Wasilla ) and the Tanana Valley (Fairbanks and Delta) contain almost 90 percent of Alaska’s usable farmland. Hay, potatoes, barley, and oats are the state’s top agricultural products. Despite this, there has been a remarkable growth in small farms across Alaska, with summertime farmers markets from Sitka  to Fairbanks .
In addition to legal crops, Alaska is famous for marijuana, and that crop is widely regarded as the state’s biggest moneymaker. Cannabis-growing operations (most are indoor operations) are especially big in the Matanuska Valley, where the potent Matanuska Thunder F— gains the favor of potheads everywhere. A measure to legalize pot failed in 2004, but medical marijuana was approved by the voters several years earlier.
Thirty million ounces of gold were taken from Alaska  between 1880 and 1980. Today, the Fort Knox Mine near Fairbanks  is Alaska’s biggest gold producer, extracting 1,000 ounces of gold per day. Another major gold mine is scheduled to open near Delta Junction in 2005, and other large hard-rock mines are near Galena and McGrath, while small placer mines are common across Alaska.
Zinc is the state’s most valuable mineral, mined at the enormous Red Dog Mine, 90 miles north of Kotzebue. The largest zinc mine in the world, it produces 575,000 tons of zinc and 100 million tons of lead per year. Coal is mined at Usibelli, near Denali National Park , and deposits of jade, molybdenum, chromite, nickel, platinum, and uranium are known, though the cost of mining in remote Alaska limits these ventures.
One highly controversial mine does not yet exist. Located in the upper reaches of the Bristol Bay watershed (home to the world’s most productive red salmon fisheries) is an enormous gold, copper, and molybdenum deposit known as Pebble Creek. The mining company talks of valuations in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and a massive open pit mine has been proposed on the site. It is opposed, however, by an unlikely coalition that includes fishers, Native Alaskan corporations, environmentalists, and wealthy lodge owners. Get their version at www.renewableresourcescoalition.org , and the mining company’s story at www.pebblepartnership.com .
Everything that moves in Alaska  is lubricated with oil, primarily North Slope crude. Without oil, the Alaskan economy would stiffen, shatter, and disappear into thin air. Oil and gas revenues account for 87 percent of the state’s tax revenue. Alaska is so addicted to oil revenue that when the price of a barrel of oil drops by $1, the budget must be adjusted by $150 million. Though the industry accounts for just 3 percent of the total workforce, the average annual salary for these workers is $100,000. Few elected officials would dare speak out against the oil companies; they all know who pays the tab when election bills come in, and they don’t want that cash going to their opponents.
At more than 350 million barrels of oil per year, Alaska accounts for around 17 percent of the nation’s oil production, second only to Texas. Peak production was in 1988, when 738 million barrels of Prudhoe crude flowed through the pipeline. The Prudhoe Bay oilfield, the largest in North America and 18th in the world, had produced 14 billion barrels by 2003, but production continues to decline.
Enormous quantities of natural gas lie beneath the North Slope, and proposals have been made to build a gas pipeline paralleling the existing oil line, or to develop a gas-to-liquids technology so that the gas can be sent down the existing oil pipeline. Higher gas prices and increased demand may finally lead to its development within the next decade. In addition to the North Slope, both oil and gas are produced from offshore wells in Cook Inlet. The natural gas is used in Anchorage  and Kenai , but production has declined in recent years.
Tourism is Alaska’s third-largest industry, behind petroleum production and commercial fishing. It’s also the second-largest employer, accounting for thousands of seasonal jobs. More than 1 million visitors travel to Alaska each year, 90 percent of them arriving May–September from the continental United States and Canada. Approximately half of all visitors (including business travelers) travel independently; the rest come up on cruise ships and package tours.
Native corporations are major players in Alaska ’s economy, and they also have large investments (we’re talking billions of dollars) spread all over the nation. The corporations include Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (www.asrc.com ), Cook Inlet Regional Corporation (CIRI) (www.ciri.com ), Chugach Alaska Corporation (www.chugach-ak.com ), Doyon, Limited (www.doyon.com ), and NANA Regional Corporation (www.nana.com ). Doyon, with more than 12 million acres, is the largest corporate landholder in the nation.
All of these companies are involved in tourism ventures around Alaska, but CIRI and NANA especially have major investments in tour companies, hotels, and other facilities. Another company that travelers to Southeast Alaska  will certainly come into contact with is the Juneau-based village Goldbelt Corporation (www.goldbelt.com ), which runs the Mt. Roberts Tram, a hotel, and various other operations. If you travel in the North, you’ll probably spend time in a Native Alaskan–owned facility or on one of their tour boats or buses.