With pandemic transition to distant jobs, some workers seek Alaska’s unique allure

As the pandemic shook work culture around the world, some Americans quit their jobs in major cities and headed north.

While Alaska hasn’t seen the same boom as parts of the Lower 48, where remote workers have flooded vacation destinations in droves, a handful of people – looking for community connections, financial convenience and accessible recreation – have found a great place to settle in the state. for the moment.

Clare Corthell, 32, is a product manager for ride-sharing company Lyft. She is originally from the community of Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula, but has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for just over a decade.

And for the past seven years, she has wanted to return to Alaska.

Corthell had planned to quit his job at the end of Last year moving because she thought that was what it would take to get here, she said.

Then a pandemic caused closures and blockages around the world, sending employees home in early March.

A month later, she bought a cabin in Seldovia, which is across Kachemak Bay from Homer.

“I really want to be in a place where I can invest in the people around me,” Corthell said. “And being in a city, it’s a little harder to do that.”

It’s hard to say with hard data if this is specifically happening in Alaska, said Gretchen Fauske, associate director of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development.

“I think this trend is playing out here on a smaller scale,” Fauske, who is working on a remote working report in Alaska, said on a recent call.

Through his research, Fauske interviewed around 30 workers who moved to Alaska to work remotely or who already lived here and took remote jobs.

Topics for interviews ranged from someone who lived like a nomad and had decided to settle in Anchorage to a few people who returned to live closer to their families but continued to work during the pandemic.

“A lot of them were Alaskans who had left and then worked here during the pandemic and could stay, maybe not,” Fauske said.

She hasn’t spoken to so many people who were thinking, “Oh, it’s a pandemic, I’m going to go to Alaska this time around and work here,” although she has heard from a few people who may be. coming for a period of a few weeks, staying in an Airbnb and working from home.

But in general, it’s difficult to analyze in the data who might be a remote worker, Fauske said. There is no real-time data that illustrates how many teleworkers may be in the state at one time. Instead, she finds this information through word of mouth, co-working spaces, and informal networks among remote workers.

“For the record, it seems there are a lot more people who are realizing that they can be flexible in the way they work, whether they are Alaskans or visiting or returning people who are joining the ‘Alaska to their plans,’ she said. .

Fauske is also studying how other communities are trying to attract remote workers. She has found that what really attracts workers are welcoming communities, cultural activities, parks and trails, and opportunities for civic engagement. Some places also offer remote workers a concierge service that provides information on local schools, libraries, recreation, and restaurants.

The most common criticism among workers she interviewed was the expensive but relatively slow Internet in Alaska.

The internet is a downside when it comes to working remotely in the state, according to Jamin Agosti, 31, who works as a lawyer for Bay Area startups. He and his wife decided to leave San Francisco for Alaska in May 2020 as blockades swept across the West Coast.

“We thought we were going to drive north and at least get somewhere where we could spend some time playing outside while the lockdown was in place,” Agosti said.

They spent the year biking, hiking and fishing. And in the last few months, as cities began to reopen, Agosti, originally from Alaska, got a totally remote job and decided to stay.

“So definitely in the short term, we plan to stay here, continue to enjoy the outdoors for at least another winter and maybe do more skiing and fat biking,” he said.

Heather Aruffo is not originally from Alaska, but received her masters from the University of Alaska Fairbanks before moving to Mongolia for a Fulbright scholarship. She returned from the scholarship in February 2020, hoping that she could get a remote job and come to the state.

She works in medical writing, which had a fairly strong distant culture even before the pandemic, but not necessarily for those in the early stages of their careers, she said.

“The plan was like going back to Alaska and working remotely as a medical writer, but I’m not sure I could have done it… without the pandemic,” she said.

By December 2020, she had moved to Anchorage. Aruffo said she moved because she had friends here and liked it, but she also cited financial reasons. It’s cheaper than other West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco, and it makes having a house with a yard – as well as a dog and a car – doable.

One aspect of the workplace change brought on by a pandemic that is not happening in Anchorage is the “Zoom Cities” phenomenon, said Bill Popp, president of Anchorage Economic Development Corp. Focus on cities are places that are typically vacation towns – like Bend, Oregon or Truckee, Calif. – where workers in major cities have relocated during the pandemic, driving up house prices.

If Anchorage were truly a Zoom City, the city would have significantly higher housing costs and much lower apartment vacancy rates, Popp said. Zoom towns also tend to be relatively close to larger towns in the Lower 48.

“We haven’t seen any of the symptoms of a Zoom Town in Anchorage – none,” Popp said. “None that we can attribute to remote workers moving here, because we just don’t see a sizable number moving here. “

The economic development agency is campaigning to bring more remote workers to Anchorage, and Popp said he heard from a few people – some who lived here and are returning, and others who are interested in the “mystique of the Alaska”.

Clare Corthell divides her work time between San Francisco, left, and her cabin in Seldovia, right. (Photos by Clare Corthell)

Corthell, who purchased the Seldovia cabin, currently divides his time between Seldovia and San Francisco.

“Seldovia has been really good because it’s so small,” she said. “If you introduce yourself and say, ‘I want to be a part of this community, I want to invest in it, I want to be a neighbor, I want to know how I can contribute to it,’ you get more than you ever could. to put.

She recently spoke with her neighbor from Seldovia about setting up a dock at their pond, with the possibility for local children to learn to kayak. This common investment and intergenerational scenario is hard to come by in a place like San Francisco, she said.

“If they force us to go back to the office here, I’m probably going to make a different choice,” she said from her home in San Francisco. “I don’t think I’ll ever commit to going back to an office in San Francisco. I don’t want to do this.

The office was manic. She was always trying to catch up to catch up. Now she’s more thoughtful and aware of how she spends her time.

“It’s not that the pace has slowed down,” Corthell said. “It’s that I can have a different relationship with my job than I ever had when there were a ton of people around me. “

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