Neal Fried has been an economist for the State of Alaska since 1978. “Most of the people I work with weren’t even born yet,” he says. The duties of his position haven’t changed much, but the economy has. Fried came to Alaska during the pipeline construction and has watched every economic fluctuation since. His job is to produce data like employment numbers, forecast for areas of the state including Anchorage, analyze trends in Alaska’s economy, and present to business groups and the state legislature. ~ as told to and edited by Alexander Deedy.

I want to start with a light-hearted question. You’re fairly well known for wearing bow ties. How did that come about?   

I didn’t start out that way. I have a whole collection of straight ties. In fact, the last presentation I made I put on a straight tie and a few people noticed. My father always wore bow ties and my mother made him a bunch and sent me a bunch and maybe that’s when it all started. They’re good for marketing. It raises my IQ, and I can use that as much as possible. [Laughs] And it’s just been sort of fun.

You’ve been in your job a long time; what do you love about it?

I just totally lucked out on this job. When I applied, I was driving a school bus in Fairbanks. I had just graduated from college. I actually drove my school bus to my interview, put on a tie, and went in. A couple weeks later, on my birthday, they offered me the job and I moved down to Anchorage. And it was just sort of the perfect job. I’m not a super technical person. I was a tour bus driver for a summer, and I think that’s maybe where I learned my gift of gab. I became—in some ways—a tour guide for Alaska’s economy, helping people understand and not getting too complicated.

Alaska’s economy is a great economy. We’re a big state geographically, but our economy is pretty small. Seven-hundred thousand people live here, the number of people working is about half that. So, we’re one of the smallest. It’s pretty easy to have a good feel for our economy, what’s happening geographically and by industry. But when you think about what makes our economy tick, it can get pretty weird. 

We have this big fishing industry—the biggest in the country—and we have this big oil industry, two industries you would think would conflict with each other. Then we have a big visitor industry. We have lots of military. Most of our land is under public ownership. Geographically where we are, our road system, the whole idea of subsistence, all those kinds of things set us apart from the rest of the country.

Alaska Economic Trends magazine cover
Neal Fried writes regularly for Alaska Economic Trends magazine.

Do you feel like, as the tour guide, you have any kind of influence in terms of giving people information that helps them make decisions? Or I guess, do you feel like there’s that sense of purpose driving you? 

Yeah, it gives me tremendous purpose. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve had a hard time retiring. I don’t see that other purpose out there. I don’t know about influence. The other wonderful thing about this job is we’re not public policymakers. We’re just telling people what we see. We’re trying to provide them with objective information, and they can do with it whatever they want and make decisions. A lot of people do use our information to make decisions whether they’re good or bad, but it’s nice to be producing objective data that people trust. 

This might be a hard question, but do you have any travel forecasts for 2022? 

This year is way busier than last year. There’s no doubt about it. I went downtown with my wife last night, and I couldn’t find anywhere to eat because places are so busy. And I was in Talkeetna this weekend. Wow, I mean, I was up there last year, and it looked like the industry had gone through a rapture. A lot of them are locals but now we see a lot of independent travelers up here; it’s fascinating. So, some places are doing pretty well, which is nice to see. These independents, I think they’re spending a lot of money because there’s a lot of pent-up demand. Of course, Southeast is not feeling that. But we expect it to be considerably better again next year. Hopefully by then the cruise ship industry will make a comeback. Part of it will depend also on how well the national economy is doing. It’s hard not to forecast a better season for next year.

Let’s talk about the more distant future. You mentioned global warming earlier, and you’ve said that you think a lot about the long term.  

I definitely hope we beat this problem. I don’t wish for global warming by any means. But there’s no doubt that if anywhere benefits from it to some degree, Alaska will. My guess is that there are already people who, even if it’s subconscious, have decided not to leave because it has become warmer, and you do have a longer summer season. We may be attracting more people, at least for part of the year. People have predicted Russia and Canada will become new breadbaskets, and we’re in the same latitude. So, maybe agriculture will eventually become something in Alaska. I’ve even heard anecdotal stories about a couple of people at the university coming here saying that they want to go anywhere north of Washington. Oregon and Washington were refuges from hot places. Well, we know that’s not necessarily true anymore.

There are certainly negative impacts that are and will affect us into the future, because it’s happening faster here in the Arctic than it is in a lot of other places. So yeah, it’s gonna be an interesting thing to watch.


Alexander Deedy formerly worked as the assistant editor and digital content manager for Alaska magazine.

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