- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A few processing plants are finding themselves shorthanded as salmon catches increase around the state, but an item in pending U.S. Senate legislation could make it easier to fill vacant positions next summer.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich supported language in the 2015 State and Foreign Operations spending bill that would enable Alaska’s seafood processing industry to once again hire foreign students for temporary positions through a work travel program.

The J-1 visa program grants temporary visas to foreign students interested in working, and traveling, in America. Alaska’s seafood processors were removed from the program in 2012, but language would allow them to participate once again.

The bill still must pass the Senate, and then go to the House, before the program is reinstated.

Participating students typically apply through a nonprofit that is expected to coordinate housing and job placements, and the students often work in locations where a rural location or seasonal workload makes hiring locally or domestically difficult.

According to Alaska Department of Labor estimates, about 25,000 individuals are hired by the seafood processing industry each year. In 2011 and 2012, approximately 70 percent of the workforce came from outside of Alaska.

Pacific Seafood Processing Association Vice President Dennis Phelan estimated Alaska processors will operate with about 300 to 500 fewer workers than would be ideal this summer.

“It’s a problem,” he said.

A smaller workforce means the plants operate more slowly, and sometimes have to put fishers on limits, capping the amount of fish they can deliver at a time, Phelan said. That’s less efficient for both the processors and the fishing fleet, he said.

Phelan said at its peak, the industry probably employed about 4,000 foreign students through the J-1 program.

While the industry would prefer to hire Alaskans and Americans, sometimes it isn’t possible, he said.

“If we had the option of doing full staffing of the plants from workers in the U.S., that is obviously our preference,” Phelan said.

But working in a seafood plant - even with the added intrigue of coming to Alaska - doesn’t appeal to very many college students in the U.S. anymore, Phelan said, although it used to. So companies more often turned to foreign students, who are interested in spending a summer in an Alaskan processing facility.

“Alaska’s seafood processors have been having difficulty hiring the workers they need during peak summer seasons, since the J-1 program was shut down two years ago,” Murkowski said in a formal statement. “Seafood processors from Naknek to Kodiak to Ketchikan rely on this program when they cannot hire Alaskans or workers from the Lower 48, so I would like to thank my committee colleagues for understanding the need to continue this program for the next year, and Senator Begich for joining me in this effort.”

Murkowski has said that the program, which was intended as a cultural exchange of sorts, was halted because of concerns regarding how it was operating outside of Alaska, a characterization Phelan agreed with.

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