Thinking About Warm Weather

Is a couple feet of snow, maybe a power outage, and perhaps a car that won’t start, enough to make one think about palm trees?


Nelson Befitel, who heads up
Hawaii’s labor department and who I talked with today, certainly hopes so.


Twenty years ago, Hawaiians started talking increasingly about the brain drain occurring as people went to college on the mainland and didn’t come back. With 2.8 percent unemployment, that’s something Befitel’s team can’t afford anymore.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Befitel says. “I’d rather have this side of the problem than the other side. It’s good for the employees because they can demand higher wages. It’s an employee’s market.”

But, he says, “Some of the employers are finding it difficult to fill positions, and mainly we’re looking at three to four major industries: Construction, the medical field, education, and high-tech life science. It’s the hot economy. We’re coming out of a down part of a cycle. As of 2003, the economy started picking up, mostly in the construction industry, tourism industry, real estate, and we’re trying to expand our economy in life sciences, high-tech. Hawaii’s history was as a plantation economy and we’re transferring to a tourism/construction economy and now we’re trying to transfer to more of a life-science economy.”

Hawaii‘s public education system is broken. A lot of high school grads can’t pass the union apprenticeship tests that lead to construction jobs, because the students can’t read and write at an 8th-grade level. The state is helping the students get remedial/refresher courses that improve their math and reading skills, as well as teach to the test. Since the courses began, test failure rates have plummeted.

Community colleges are also working to improve student skills, with the help of government grants. And fairs are being held on the islands to introduce young people to the construction industry.

As far as the medical field, Befitel says a $2 million grant from the U.S. Congress has helped in training students for jobs in nursing fields. It’s also helping to teach business skills to people who can open up long-term care businesses. Partly because of the influence of Asian/Hawaiian culture, long-term care via small businesses (as opposed to putting someone in an institution) is popular in Hawaii. Also, the University of Hawaii is working with Philippines to coordinate coursework in order to make it easier to bring in nurses.

Befitel graduated from high school in Maui, received a bachelor?s degree in journalism from the University of Hawaii, and a law degree from Arizona State in 1994. In the end, he says, “It (the skills shortage) comes down to the public education system, reforming the education system, improving skills of the workforce. There are opportunities here in Hawaii for people to thrive as we expand the economy, especially in the life sciences and biotech. Hopefully our former residents will come back home.”



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