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Monday, November 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Low Tech -- Eight Hours At A Desk Isn't You? There's Still A Paycheck In The Old Standbys

Seattle Times Business Reporter

Want a good-paying job? Look outside.

As the Puget Sound region's economy heats up, much of the growth in wages and employment has been in the high-tech, software and aerospace industries. But the region's old economic mainstays - timber, fishing and farming - are still providing jobs, sometimes at decent wages, for people willing to work outdoors.

Far from moribund, some of the natural-resources industries are beating the bushes for workers. The work can be grim, Grapes of Wrath stoop labor. But there are jobs out there for people who want to make more than minimum wage.

Even lowly deckhands on halibut and black-cod boats can make $80,000 to $100,000 in an eight-month work year, said Bob Alverson of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association in Seattle.

Halibut fishing is hard work. Deckhands bait hooks, carry 40- and 60-pound anchors used to steady fishing lines in the water and coil heavy line by hand. They work irregular hours, depending on travel time between fishing grounds.

Fishermen typically go out on five-day trips on which they catch the fish, head and gut it, pack it in ice and bleed it. They work 16-hour days, five days a week.

They work in the wind and cold of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, fishing waters up to 3,000 feet deep.

Once the catch is stored in the boat's hold, it still has to be delivered and the boat washed down. Then the crew heads back out to sea to start all over again.

Big bucks can be earned by crewing on a crab boat on the Bering Sea. Highliners, as top earners are called, can make as much as $100,000 in a six-month season, said Arni Thomson of the Alaska Crab Coalition in Seattle.

The work is grueling. Crabbers coil lines, bait crab pots and hack ice off the boat so it doesn't roll and dump them in the frigid sea.

Finding work on a fishing boat takes shoe leather and persistence. Go to Fisherman's Terminal in Seattle and talk to boat skippers. Start in December and January to get a place on a boat in time for the opening of the season in March.

Many fishing boats are family-owned and run, so it is hard to get a job on the crew. But persistence may prevail.

Be sure you are signing on to a safe boat and working with a responsible skipper. Notice whether the boat is clean and painted, and if the deck is well-organized.

A boat that's not in good repair tells a lot about the operator. Ask the skipper about his drug policy. If he or she doesn't have one, you might want to think twice. Talk to people who know the boat at shipyards. They will know how seaworthy it is.

Hard workers can also earn high wages on factory trawlers, the monster ships longer than football fields used to catch and process fish at sea.

Even entry-level fish processors working on a factory trawler can earn $30,000 to $40,000 in six to eight months, depending on the catch. It's monotonous work, tied to the factory's conveyor belt, or "slime line," as it's affectionately known.

"The fact that the work is on a boat makes it sound glamorous, but it is not," said Taunya Hilfrink of Arctic Storm, which operates two factory trawlers that work the pollock fishery in Alaska.

"You are standing in one place doing the same thing over and over. One person takes frozen fish out of a pan. Another pushes fish into a slot. Another puts a small box inside a larger one. Another stacks 60-pound boxes in the freezer."

People work a minimum of 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and they don't leave the boat for three months. Workers eat together and share quarters, up to six in a room.

"The boat gets small pretty quickly," Hilfrink said. Even so, the work pays well for unskilled labor. "I'm turning people away."

To get work on a factory trawler, apply at the corporate offices of the processing companies, most of which are here in Seattle. The companies also run want ads in the newspapers.

Landlubbers can earn above minimum wages on farms, too, but not necessarily. It depends on how heavy the crop is, market prices, and the worker's own speed and skill.

Farms are home to some of the toughest jobs in the state.

Back-breaking piece work, low wages and bleak working and living conditions are the reality endured by many crop pickers and packers.

But some of the best-paid orchard workers can make up to $12 an hour if they are fast and the crop is good, said Larry Knudson of Yakima, who farms 130 acres of apples and pears.

Knudson said he had to scramble to find enough help during some days this past harvest season.

"I've been in this for 20 years, and it's getting tighter and tighter." Knudson attributes the squeeze in part to stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws by Border Patrol officers. Arrests of illegal immigrants hit a six-year high in Eastern Washington this year. Other growers talk of borrowing work crews from their neighbors, or leaving crops in the field.

Most of the labor shortages occurred in Okanogan County, where a poor apple crop also kept workers away. They are paid by the bin, so a thin apple crop means less money.

Other outdoor industries, such as logging, are enduring a steadily tougher challenge to find people who want to work in the woods, contractors say. It's their job to put together crews that cut the trees, lasso them with cables and haul them onto trucks to get the cut out of the woods.

The Washington Contract Loggers Association in Olympia offers an $80 course that provides an overview of the forestry industry. It covers forest management practices and safety and business management issues to help give newcomers a sense of how to launch a career in the woods.

The statewide association can also hook laborers up with contractors looking for work. Call 800-422-0074.

Loggers make as much as $25 an hour, and the best, most dependable workers are lured with retirement plans, health benefits and productivity bonuses, said Dave Lorence, a forester for Plum Creek Timber.

"Loggers are the most transient, independent cusses you'll ever see. I've seen them up and quit on the spot and sling their caulk boots over their shoulder and start walking home out of the woods when it's a 20-mile walk."

As the Puget Sound high-tech industry and Boeing soak up more and more workers, employers like him are having a harder time getting and keeping help, Lorence said.

"These guys aren't stupid. They have other options. And they look at this industry and wonder if there's a future in it. These guys are looking ahead at shrinking timber supplies and increasing mechanization."

Toby Murray of Murray Pacific in Tacoma said finding people to work in the woods is "hugely more difficult.

"You kind of have to be raised in this kind of work. You have to have a love for the land, and live for what you do to deal with this kind of lifestyle. As the state becomes more urbanized it's going to continue to be a problem. Urban kids don't want to get dirty and nasty and cold and wet."

Lynda V. Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail address is: lmap-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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