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Alaska processor 'fishing for people'

MEDFORD — With unemployment figures in double-digits, Jeff Myers expected to see more seats filled Thursday at the Red Lion Hotel.

Myers is a recruiter for Alaskan seafood processor Westward Seafoods and is midway through a 12-stop tour from Seattle to Fresno, Calif. His job is to fill a 24/7 processing plant with 800 workers in Unalaska in the Aleutians.

"Employment is not very good in Medford and I would have expected there to be 60 people by now," said Myers as prospective workers filled out applications.

Myers did as much to dissuade applicants as recruit them during his presentation, but most of the 26 predominantly male crowd stayed around for interviews.

People desperate for work are willing to put up with 12-hour shifts, seven days a week along with mandatory 18-hour shifts for wages of $7.75 an hour for the first 40 hours and $11.63 overtime.

"It's not as much money as I thought it would be," admitted Tom Pollard of Talent. "But I need the money."

Pollard, who installed satellite television dishes for 18 years, is out of a job. He's motivated for several reasons, including child support for three daughters.

"It's long hours, hard work and all of that, but in a few months you're done and you come back with all that money."

Given the concentration of the work schedule, the room and board as well as laundry and maid service, workers can expect to earn about $15,000 during the typical four-and-a-half month tour of duty. Many work longer periods, some shorter. But it's foreign territory for just about everybody.

"You must be very disciplined to do the job," Myers said. "There are four reasons to go to Unalaska: One, process fish; two, make money; three, eat; and four, sleep. You can't recreate your home life there."

Mike Thistle has spent the past 10 years working for an architect firm in Las Vegas, but when the economic building boom went bust, he was out of a job. He flew to Medford for the meeting.

"I lost my job two months ago," Thistle said. "I have friends who have worked in the seafood industry and I've been looking at the ads."

He was no less gung-ho after the meeting.

"I've watched videos and done my research," he said. "There was nothing new."

New hires, who pass the physical and drug tests, are flown from Seattle to Anchorage and then to Dutch Harbor. If they fail to complete the 1,500-hour work commitment or are fired, they have to pay their own way home.

Despite the potential of spending much of next year in a cold and forlorn hamlet as close to Russia as mainland United States, David Shurtliff was pumped at the prospect.

"I think it's an adventure, it's my chance to leave this state," said Shurtliff, who has lived his first 21 years in White City. "My uncle is a fisherman and a processor up there. In fact, most of the males in my family have done it."

Jason Waites of Central Point has summered in Alaska's more accessible locales in Juneau, Anchorage and Homer.

His fabrication and welding work has dried up so he sees the opportunity to return north.

"I think of Alaska as my home away from home," Waites said.

His buddy, Adam Widener, has worked as a car detailer.

"I'm hoping for a job with more hours," Widener said. "I've done a lot of crabbing and fishing on the Oregon coast, but never for a company."

This has been the easiest recruitment season for Myers since joining Westward Seafood in 2006. Despite the predominantly male turnout in Medford, he said about half of the employees at the plant are women. There are 10 major seafood processing players in the region he said and many smaller operations.

"When we're on the road like this," he said. "We're fishing for people."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

People interested in working in an Alaska cannery watch workers sort through fish in a Westward Seafoods recruiting video at the Red Lion in Medford Thursday. - Jamie Lusch