Earlier this summer, I was fortunate to attend a meeting of the Tikahtnu Forum. It is gratifying when individuals and organizations come together to work toward improving the lives of Alaska Native people.
The Tikahtnu Forum started as a way to gather representatives from CIRI and Cook Inlet region Tribes, villages and nonprofits for business collaborations and a discussion of issues that impact Alaska Native people. This most recent meeting included a presentation by Ralph Townsend, director of social and economic research at the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research, who discussed Alaska’s budget and economy, including the state’s employment outlook and its rapidly changing demographics.
While the U.S. experiences a record-breaking streak of job creation and low unemployment rates, the Anchorage and Alaska economies continue to struggle. In January, the U.S. unemployment rate hovered at 3.7% while Alaska’s was 6.3%—more than 50% higher than the national average.
For years, the state has depended heavily on oil revenues to fund our government. Between 2005 and 2014, 90% of Alaska’s general fund revenues came from oil revenues, but Alaska’s oil revenues have fallen significantly due to lower oil prices and lower production. In 2014, West Coast oil was $113 per barrel; it now hovers around $70 per barrel.
Alaska’s economy is in what Mr. Townsend described as a “fragile recovery.” It will take us four or five years to regain the 11,000 jobs lost since 2015, and oil production in Alaska will continue to fall significantly until 2026.
Alaska is changing, and the change is this: Never in the state’s history have we experienced five years of a flatlined growth rate. It may be tempting to blame oil prices—low oil prices cripple job creation and growth, forcing residents to look Outside for work—but the change has more to do with fewer births and, as baby boomers age, an increasing number of deaths. Economists predict 100,000 fewer Alaskan workers by 2040. In a state with a population of only 737,000, that’s significant.
As we look to the future, the Alaska Federation of Natives has identified four priority areas: infrastructure, public safety, health care and education.
Of these, there is a clear business case for tackling the education crisis, which is why education is fast becoming a front-and-center issue for corporations like CIRI. Nationally, a quarter of freshman high-school students fail to graduate on time. And in Alaska, only 55% of Alaska Native students graduate in four years.
Education imparts self-esteem, confidence and pride; it provides a path to long-term career opportunities and keeps Alaska competitive. CIRI is proud to support causes such as United Way of Anchorage’s 90% by 2020 Partnership, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program and the Anchorage School District’s School Business Partnership Program. Additionally, CIRI is on the frontlines with innovative programs and opportunities of its own, such as the CIRI C3 Experience, educational incentives and Next Gen Day.
Since its establishment in 1982 by the CIRI Board of Directors, The CIRI Foundation has contributed more than $33 million to the educational and cultural pursuits of CIRI shareholders and the descendants of original CIRI enrollees. And CIRI-affiliated nonprofit Cook Inlet Tribal Council has also developed several programs that are steadily improving Alaska Native and American Indian academic performance.
As the economy and demographics of Alaska change, we must make education a statewide priority and implement proven and innovative programs to improve learning and close our state’s academic performance gaps. Working together, I am confident we can meet the future head on.