"Dr. Marie Lowe is an assistant professor of anthropology at U of A-Anchorage who recently completed an economic impact study of IFQ permitting in the Aleutian Islands. Now that the permitting structure has been in place for a few years, she returns along with research associate Meghan Wilson to Alaska’s rural coastal communities to study the social effects."
"“What we’re seeing economically is that it’s really hard for young people to break into those fisheries once they go IFQ and that there’s very little upward mobility for people in fisheries,” she explained."
University study sheds light on
young people leaving town
September 25, 2008.
Researchers from the University of Alaska visited Petersburg this week as part of a study on why young adults are leaving their rural community. Dr. Marie Lowe is an assistant professor of anthropology at U of A-Anchorage who recently completed an economic impact study of IFQ permitting in the Aleutian Islands. Now that the permitting structure has been in place for a few years, she returns along with research associate Meghan Wilson to Alaska’s rural coastal communities to study the social effects. The two recently offered Petersburg residents aged 18-24 $15 to have a discussion with them about what they wanted, whether they could get it in Petersburg, and how fishing was a part of their decisions. The study comes at a time when Petersburg’s loss of young people is affecting a wide range of local entities, including the school district which is suffering from low enrollment numbers and the hospital which recently made the decision to stop delivering babies due to low birth rates.
The Aleutian Islands study had helped Lowe to draw a few conclusions already.
“It’s really hard when you’re studying fishing from either a social or economic point of view because a lot of fishermen in the past dabbled in a lot of different fisheries throughout the year to make it. Now because of IFQ programs, they’re being forced to specialize. What we found out there is that their initial allocations are so small...and that’s if they even get them.”
She related a story about a respected King’s Cove resident with a lifetime of fishing experience who had just purchased his own boat and a salmon permit, but struggled financially with his initial limit.
“What we’re seeing economically is that it’s really hard for young people to break into those fisheries once they go IFQ and that there’s very little upward mobility for people in fisheries,” she explained.
That may be part of the reason why so many high school graduates are opting for college courses, but Lowe said Alaskan students were often unprepared to cope with that level of education.
“What I found was parents sort of thinking that they needed to send their kids to college. There’s a little bit of a dilemma there because a lot of the (Alaskan) schools are small and have limited resources. The kids turn out not to be ready. They don’t get exposed to higher level math and science classes. Their reading levels are really low. So the problem is that parents are sending out these first generation college students with money, but without much guidance,” she said.
The tight-knit communities found in most small Alaskan towns also hampered efforts to go abroad. Lowe reported that a lot of students became homesick quickly and almost all of them had made a trip home by the end of the winter holidays. These factors were some of the reasons why a lot of students spent only a year at college before returning home.
“They’re trying college for a year and then coming back. That’s what the kids told us last night,” she said.
These factors has led Lowe to think about job preparedness and education differently, stating that she thought small towns may need to shift their educational goals if they wanted to keep their youngsters.
“In the end, the survival of these places is going to depend on the people who have a connection to them. They’re the ones who are going to be the future community stewards,” she explained. “There was an article in the Anchorage paper that said we’re dead last as far as meeting national education standards and that we need to create more of a college-growing culture. That may be good, but at the same time think about what Alaskans are like too. What are their strengths? They’re really hard-working, hands on people. Why can’t we provide alternate training that capitalizes on those types of strengths instead of trying to make academics out of everybody?”
While new regulations are making upward mobility in the fishing industry more difficult, Lowe believed plenty of jobs existed in service sector like metalworking and boat repair. She also hopes her research will help the U of A system alter some of their goals.
“There definitely needs to be more of a connection between the University of Alaska and local school districts. The university needs to start thinking of pumping more funding into their vocational programs,” she said.
As for Petersburg, the situation currently appears grim with most of the young people interviewed currently working service jobs like waiting tables or working at local coffee shops with no foreseeable way of obtaining upward mobility.
“That was a big concern for a lot of the kids last night. They said they needed to have jobs with benefits. They were focused on that because they wanted to start families here, but they needed to figure out a way to get insurance,” explained Lowe. She then went on to explain the severity of outward migration.
“Out migration is a big issue. The Department of Labor did a big study that tracked kids over an eight year period. What they found was that 40% of them left the state never to return. So it’s in the state’s best interest to find a way to bring the young people back just in terms of the future health of our communities and our state,” she said.
Her study so far has come up with a lot of recommendations on how to improve things. Most of them were simple ideas, like explaining all of the options to graduating seniors.
“The thing we learned from kids last night was that when you get out of high school, you just don’t understand the options that are available to you. There needs to be somebody there to tell you the range of things that you can do, but we’re so fixated on going to college that that’s the answer,” she said.
Another came from Petersburg High School where the top 6% of the graduates receive scholarships to the University of Alaska. Lowe reported that the guidance counselor said students rarely took U of A up on their offer.
“She made the good point that the top six here are not going to stay and go to University of Alaska. They’re going to Cornell or Princeton. She said that it’s the kids a little bit below that who needed the opportunities,” explained Lower.
Another idea was simply making the community more attractive to younger people. That meant giving them things to do and providing places to hang out. Lowe said that several people mentioned the gym costing money, which deterred the young people with low incomes from partaking in healthy activities in favor of free get togethers like parties.
Throughout her research, Lowe remained positive that simple changes could be made to help rural communities retain their young people.
“What we learned is that there are some pretty approachable solutions to some of this stuff that people can be actively working on,” she said.