WANTED: MORE WORKERS
ASSOCIATED PRESS / SEPTEMBER 2005
Kristen McCallum, right, fills out a job application along with hundreds of other Hawaii residents seeking work during a job fair at the Blaisdell Center. An acute labor shortage on the Big Island is prompting employers to reach out to more populated Oahu and even across the Pacific to fill job openings.
Calling all kamaaina
Big Isle employers are reaching out to former residents to fill a labor shortage
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii » An acute labor shortage on the Big Island is prompting employers to reach out across the Pacific to fill job openings.
"It's a multipronged problem," says Mark McGuffie, executive director of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. "We've really got some work to do, but we've also got some things that are starting to percolate."
Attracting new industries that offer higher-paying, skilled jobs is one priority.
The state labor force topped 650,000 in August, with 632,200 employed and 18,200 without jobs. In August the state returned to a familiar place, once again posting the lowest unemployment rate in the nation: 2.8 percent, down from 3 percent in July. Nationwide unemployment was at 4.7 percent.
Although companies across the state are in need of workers, the situation is particularly acute on the western side of the Big Island. The Sunday, Oct. 1, edition of West Hawaii Today included five pages of job vacancies, from landscape maintenance and golf cart attendants to hotel executives, nurses and construction project managers. Some ads listed signing bonuses of up to $1,000.
The availability of jobs on the island sparked the private nonprofit development board to create Kamaaina Come Home, a program designed to entice kamaaina to return to the Big Island.
Many of the state's young professionals historically have had to leave the islands to pursue careers, but that is changing as the high-tech, biotech and niche industries are growing across the islands.
For example, McGuffie said, a new agriculture research facility in Hilo is expected to create 200 jobs, including 30 positions for scientists with Ph.D. degrees.
Now, McGuffie said, his job is making former residents aware of opportunities at home, specifically by conducting job fairs up and down the West Coast.
"The program shows quite a bit of promise," he said.
One advantage is that former residents often have an existing support system of family or friends, including a place to live where they can avoid rising rents, as well as a familiarity with Hawaii, its lifestyle and culture.
Job fairs with the Hawaii Island and Maui economic development boards and state Labor Department are scheduled for Friday in Las Vegas and Sunday in Torrance, Calif. Spring job fairs are slated for San Jose, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle.
Jon Sakurai-Horita, president of Kamaaina Careers, said he is busy planning several Hawaii-themed events on the West Coast. "There is a big group of kamaaina who do want to come back," he said.
The Big Island can tap that market, he said.
"We have the lowest unemployment rate on this island ever. It's at 3.3 percent, but realistically it's about 5 percent in Hilo and down at 2 percent in Kona," McGuffie said. "And a large chunk of that are unemployable for one reason or another."
Typically, McGuffie said, Hawaii has 28,000 jobs that need to filled each year. High school graduates total about 15,000 each year, with more than 3,000 leaving the islands to pursue college or employment.
Along the Kohala and Kona coasts, hotels and resorts still account for a huge number of jobs, and right now they have a huge number of vacancies. Although the exact number is not tracked, economists and tourism experts say it likely is hovering at about 1,000 openings.
"Recruitment is always a challenge," said Kurt Matsumoto, general manager of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows. "We just have to get creative."