HELP WANTED IN HAWAII -- BADLY
With a palm tree reflected in the glass, a help-wanted sign was taped last week to the entrance to a Wolfgang Puck Express restaurant in Honolulu.
Prospective job applicants must pay price of paradise
Hawaii has plentiful jobs and rising wages, but it also has expensive housing
Hawaii could almost change its state motto to "Help Wanted."
With the unemployment rate at half the national average, jobs in Hawaii are going begging. Businesses are offering better salaries, more benefits and extra overtime pay, and they still can't find enough workers.
But before jumping on a plane to paradise, state officials are warning mainland jobseekers that there's a catch -- a high cost of living, in just about every category.
Workers willing to take that on can sometimes write their own ticket.
Joelle Branch, a 27-year-old single mother, found a job that allows her to have Tuesdays and Thursdays off so she can attend university classes, and she's already received a raise.
"I was looking for something that would help me make my schedule around school and allow me to find time with my son," said Branch, who was hired as an office assistant for George's Aviation Services in Honolulu in August.
Jamba Juice, which is rapidly expanding its frozen fresh fruit drink outlets in the islands, offers a $10,000 bonus to store managers who stay on the job for three years.
"Now hiring" signs decorate storefront windows. Some companies entice with flexible scheduling. Even fast-food restaurants are starting workers at between $7 and $12 an hour. First Hawaiian Bank has doubled its hiring bonus to $500, in addition to offering gym memberships, tuition reimbursements and medical spending programs.
"It's a continuous challenge to attract and retain workers," said Iris Matsumoto, the bank's senior vice president for human resources. "Everyone is tweaking their programs and being more creative."
There's so much demand for workers that even ex-cons and high-school dropouts have a good chance of finding jobs, said Tom Smyth, senior adviser for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
"Employers are more willing to provide opportunities for someone they weren't willing to offer them to before," said Laura Kay Rand, vice president of corporate services of Goodwill Industries of Hawaii. "For employees, the low unemployment rate creates opportunities."
Hawaii's unemployment rate is at its lowest level since January 1991, according to figures released earlier this month by the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. There are only 15,300 people unemployed out of 645,700 in the labor force.
No other state comes close to Hawaii's 2.4 percent unemployment rate. The next lowest are Florida and Virginia, at 3 percent each. Mississippi has the highest jobless rate, at 8.4 percent. The national average rose to 4.8 percent in February.
Hawaii's rate likely will stay low for at least the next couple of years because people only migrate to the state slowly, said Carl Bonham, an economist for the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.
But mainland jobseekers may want to think twice before relocating. Travel to visit relatives anywhere beyond the islands is expensive, property and rents are among the highest in the nation, traffic can be awful, food can be pricey and it's difficult to escape the hordes of tourists. And then there's the expense of simply getting family and household belongings across the Pacific.
On the other hand, businesses are willing to pay extra to compensate for some of the pricey disadvantages.
"They look at it as, 'We're running out of workers,'" said Smyth. "The hotels need more people, the buses need more drivers, the stores need more clerks."
Most of the open jobs are in construction, retail, transportation, utilities, leisure, hospitality, education and health, according to the state Labor Department.
Over the next few years, Hawaii's strong economy is expected to continue on its fast pace, said Paul Brewbaker, chief economist for the Bank of Hawaii. That will open even more jobs.
Companies will be forced to offer better wages, and then those costs will be passed on to consumers in higher prices, he said.
Eventually, that inflationary pressure puts a drag on economic growth.
"Can we keep it running this hot?" Brewbaker asked. "We seem to be in a fairly resilient kind of mode. ... I think we'll pull it out until 2008. With a little luck, maybe beyond."
ADDING IT ALL UP
People who want to move here for work must pay the rent:
The problem: Hawaii can't find enough workers to fill the jobs being created by its fast-growing economy.
Who benefits: Workers. Employers are offering workers higher pay, generous bonuses and benefits like gym memberships and tuition reimbursements.
The Catch: Hawaii is an expensive place to live. Rents and property values are among the highest in the nation, food can be pricey and travel to visit relatives anywhere beyond the islands will cost you hundreds of dollars.