For the week of January 27, 1999   thru February 2, 1999  

Drawn by the natural landscape, spurned by the employment landscape

Professional woman finds frustration in the local job market

Express Staff Writer

It is hard to pass a day in the Wood River Valley without hearing a tale of employment woe.

Too often, you hear about jobs not paying enough, about desired jobs filling too quickly, or about the long hours required to make ends meet. Increasingly, a similar story is being told by educated professionals ensnared by a Wood River Valley employment trap: they want to live here but find a shortage of jobs that stimulate and afford a living.

Ketchum resident Sarah Michael is a case in point.

Sarah came in from the Alaskan cold in August, returning to the hillside Hulen Meadows home she shares with Bob Jonas and their sled dog Buck. For two years, the pair traversed Alaska by sea kayak, foot and ski on what she dubbed a "wilderness walkabout."

In Australia, walkabouts are rituals of wandering the bush common among aborigine. The ritual is meant to interrupt regular work and bring a welcomed return to traditional life.

Sarah seizes the opportunity to reflect on her return to traditional life in Alaska. She is quick to expound her mushing techniques, her crossing of the St. Elias Icefields in whiteout conditions, or her culinary run-ins with Alaskan fiddlehead ferns and freeze-dried salsa.

But when asked about regular work, Sarah starts to glower.

She’s not a slacker. She’s not apathetic. She’s a highly skilled professional with a frustration and a love called the Wood River Valley.

"The big challenge for many professional women," according to Sarah, "is how to create professional jobs locally that incorporate your professional background and afford a decent wage."

"I don’t have a solution for that yet," she said.

She’s having no problem applying her recently honed outdoor survival skills. Sun Valley Trekking Company, the backcountry ski operation Bob has owned since 1983, has benefited from her hard labor.

"Bob bought me a chainsaw as a romantic welcome-home present," she said. She has been using the saw to cut fire wood for the trekking company’s backcountry huts.

Since settling back into Ketchum, her professional skills, though, have fallen by the wayside.

For some 20 years, Sarah said she was blissfully immersed in California government and politics.

Her longest stint in the fray of politics was as a lobbyist for the firm of George R. Steffes Inc. Sarah’s business was public policy--reading it, writing it, delivering it, defending it, and negotiating it. Her client list reads like a who’s who of the Fortune 500.

Before her job as a lobbyist, Sarah worked for five years with the California Energy Commission, where she managed energy-conservation and alternative-energy programs. Ultimately she served as special advisor to the chairman of the commission.

Her resume is further packed with positions on local committees and nonprofits based in Sacramento, Tahoe and Ketchum.

Ketchum’s employment landscape, though, is not an ideal place for a public policy wonk like Sarah.

She is not, however, too eager to leave the Wood River Valley for other pastures.

"The beauty here is just awesome," she said, with a gesture across her sun dappled living room to the windows fronting the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

Indeed, she is passionate about relating to her natural landscape.

"I think I’m a little peculiar," she says, "with my almost atavistic throwback to when our rhythms were dictated by nature, not by technology."

And in an entry in her Alaska journal, she writes:

"The haunting cry of a loon breaks the quiet. For once there are no slapping waves or murmurs of wind on the tree tops. The honking of a Canadian Goose is heard over the raucous screech of a seagull. These are the noises which dominate our days. Days go by without hearing a plane or boat. Our marine radio is silent…I’m surprised that being so isolated and remote doesn’t alarm me more. In fact, I relish it."

She had hoped, upon her return to the Wood River Valley, that she could balance her love of the outdoors with her love of public policy. But she has found little that she relishes in Ketchum’s employment landscape.

She has found "a nice fit" here, she said, with the Sawtooth Community Garden Project, where she sits on the board and assists with marketing.

But like many professionals who are drawn to the region for the natural landscape, Sarah’s skills have been idle. And she won’t stand for that.

For Sarah, driving a team of dogs over Alaskan snow may have been a fitting substitute for driving public policy. But mushing doesn’t pay.


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