Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Hawaii's Brain Drain



Isles lose many
of ‘the best
and brightest’

The mainland offers graduates
more money, opportunities
and prestige

By Lavonne Leong
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Recent University of Hawaii graduates in finance were asked, "What advice would you offer current and soon-to-be graduating students in your major?"

Almost 25 percent responded, "Move to the mainland."

Brain Drain


Are you from Hawaii, but living somewhere else? Email us at to tell us your views on why you moved away, what might lead you to return and what Hawaii can do to retain its 'best and brightest.'
We'll present a digest of your responses in a later edition.

Go to Brain Drain Archive

More students are taking that advice as they survey Hawaii's economic landscape. While a lot of the perception of a "brain drain" is anecdotal, numbers back it up.

Census reports released late last year show that in a 1997 and 1998 period almost 17,000 more people moved from Hawaii to the mainland than moved from the mainland to Hawaii.

Hawaii's population growth rate is third-lowest in the United States, extraordinary given Hawaii's high birthrate and high foreign immigration.

And Hawaii Data Book figures show a gradual rise in the average age of Hawaii's citizens, indicating that those who leave are disproportionately young.

"In the earlier days, I think that everybody pretty much wanted to stay home," said Dr. Eleanor Len, director of career services at UH. "Now I think they're beginning to say, 'I'm willing to go to the mainland.' "

Some experts are reluctant to use the term "brain drain."

Nicholas Ordway, professor of financial economics and institutions at UH, would rather talk about the "education drain."

Ira Rohter, UH associate professor of politics, preferred to talk about the "soul drain," but added, "I think there is a real brain drain in Hawaii if you mean ... that the best and the brightest are leaving."

Ordway described the typical mainland-mover as young and well educated. "Many of the recently educated or soon-to-be educated college-age students are leaving and probably will never come back to Hawaii, except to visit with family," he said.

The economy is the reason cited most often for the exodus, but not always for the obvious reasons. Statistics first started showing more workers leaving for the mainland than coming here in 1987 -- a year the economy was booming. Every year since then has recorded a deepening trend toward people leaving.

Ordway said the brain drain has become an issue "because of a series of dynamics that came together and created high-housing prices, low-paying jobs and a lack of opportunity. We can place any graduate from UH in any major job any place except in Hawaii."

Yet the economy is only one of a number of reasons why people leave and stay away.

About 5 percent of Waipahu High's graduates attend mainland colleges. About 10 to 15 percent of Roosevelt High's college-bound students go to the mainland. And although UH is the single school that receives the most Punahou students, 87 percent of the Punahou class of 1998 left Hawaii to attend college.

"A large number of kids (nationally) go to college within a 500-mile radius," said Myron Arakawa, Punahou's director of college counseling. "Well, for Hawaii kids, 500 miles is in the middle of the Pacific. It's not abnormal for Hawaii students to want an adventure away from home. Unfortunately, 'away from home' is awaaay from home."

That's not necessarily bad. Students who go to the mainland for college "have so many different and new positive experiences that they feel that those who stay back may not have had the chance to get involved in," said Lillian Yonamine, counselor for Waipahu High. "They feel, 'Oh wow, my friends (who stayed in Hawaii), they seem like they're still in high school.' "

That's fine, said Rohter. "The problem is coming back."

Most high-schoolers leaving for college on the mainland intend to return. Rory Padeken, a sophomore at Punahou, thinks he might want to go to Stanford. "It's away from home but not too far away," he said. "Hawaii's home."

But Roosevelt High counselor Nancy Scarci said that intending to return when Hawaii is all you've ever known is one thing; actually returning, after building another life elsewhere, is another.

"I think 'eventually' is the key thing," she said. "They want to come back 'eventually.' A lot of them say 'I want to raise my family here,' or 'When I get married, I want to come home.' "

Passing milestones

Once they become tracked into mainland life, however, the urge to return diminishes.

"By that time -- this is maybe 10 years after they graduate -- (moving back) is a nice idea but then he looks at the size of the house, you look at job opportunities ..." Scarci said.

Those who put down roots on the mainland are least likely to return. Putting down a root can mean passing any of the big milestones: marrying, buying a house, having children. Students who are waiting for the right career opportunity to surface in Hawaii have found it difficult to postpone building a life wherever they are.

"They've bought homes. They're raising their kids," said UH's Len.

State Rep. Brian Schatz, 27, said many of Hawaii's children leave before they have had a chance to participate in an adult Hawaii: "When you're 18, 21, you go to other people's events. As you get older, you start giving them -- you are the party, you are the community organization."

For those who have moved to the mainland, Hawaii has often become just a distant place to go for food, sun, and a quick shot of ohana -- a vacation spot, fraught with rumors of a bad economy and gridlocked politics.

"When I went to school in Texas," said Ronald Atienza, "I built enough of a life there that I missed Hawaii less and less. People leave Hawaii for one reason, then become attached to their new home for another."

Hawaii can fall victim to its own easygoing image as a tourist escape from the real world.

"I think people equate staying here with a lack of drive," said Kippen Chu. After graduating from the American University in Paris, Chu returned to Hawaii and now works in the state Legislature. "It's like, 'Oh you just want to stay here so you can go beach every day.' "

The fashion lag -- the feeling that Hawaii finds fads just as the mainland is abandoning them -- contributes to the peripheral feeling, said Vu Van, a junior at UH. "New York sets the trends, then they move down to Los Angeles, and then Hawaii gets it six months afterwards."

"We believe, and we've always believed, that we're five steps behind," said nationally acclaimed author Lois-Ann Yamanaka. "It's the 'You're only good [enough] to be on this rock' mentality. It's ingrained. And when your neighbor's kid goes to Stanford and you had to stay in Hilo College -- I mean, heaven forbid! To me it's sad because I felt that way."

Many assume that it's impossible or unambitious to live in Hawaii, and they leave even before they have looked for jobs here. "Part of it is the economic situation in our state, but there's also a psychology among young entrepreneurial people about different cities," Schatz said. "People are very fickle about what cities they think are hip. Sure, there are more jobs in San Francisco, but part of the reason that there are more jobs there is that everyone is going there to start businesses, to be entrepreneurial."

The heady "playing with the big boys now" feeling associated with a mainland job can make a job in Hawaii seem less desirable. "When it comes to class reunion time," said Chu, a Punahou '83 graduate, "it's much more prestigious to say that you're a communications consultant for Boeing in Seattle than a marketing specialist for Bank of Hawaii."

Schatz said the media's magnifying glass on economic woes can augment the problem: "I think the media does a disservice to local kids sometimes by exaggerating our economic problems and focusing on what's not possible rather than focusing on what's possible."

The brain drain can be a vicious circle: A perceived lack of opportunity makes people look elsewhere for jobs. They leave, so the skilled work force diminishes. Then companies coming in decry the lack of a skilled work force and fill skilled positions with non-Hawaii employees.

"We would be able to keep more of our people here if some of the captains of our industry here made it a point to hire people from here rather than bring people in," said Gov. Ben Cayetano.

Financially, said Ordway, the brain drain "probably reinforces a single-industry state, i.e. tourism, which doesn't depend on that many well-educated individuals. It is probably making Hawaii less attractive to high-tech industries."

Lack of innovation

Ordway also said he thinks the brain drain is partly responsible for a dearth of innovation here. Given Hawaii's wealth of scientific natural resources, scientific breakthroughs like Ryuzo Yanagimachi's cloned mice should not be isolated incidents.

"Hawaii is producing about one-fourth to one-fifth the number of patents it should, given the size of its population," said Ordway, "and despite the fact that we have a comparative advantage in astronomy, biology, botany."

The total population will also get older. "The migration is not symmetrical; it's asymmetrical towards the younger ages. So what is happening is that the overall population in Hawaii is aging," said Ordway.

If Hawaii continues on this path, UH Law professor Randall Roth's projections for five years down the road are grim. He described a changed Hawaii, with less aloha spirit and fewer people with roots in Hawaii. People have continued to move to Hawaii from elsewhere, but "their life experiences and values are not identical to those of the folks whose places they took.


Lavonne Leong

Typical case: Wed outside
Hawaii; may never return

Lavonne Leong is a 1993 graduate of Punahou. She received a bachelor's degree in English from Barnard College and is now in the third year of a doctoral program in English literature at Oxford University in England.

In many ways, she is the embodiment of Hawaii's brain drain. Asked about her future plans, she said:

"Do I want to move back to Hawaii? The answer is yes, but I guess I'm your typical case. I spent several years building a life away from Hawaii, and married an Englishman, who agreed to move back to the U.S. with me, but feels Hawaii would be an ocean too far unless there was something really good there for both of us.

"So I guess you could say something like, 'After her doctorate, she plans to move somewhere in the western half of the United States with her husband to pursue an academic and writing career.' "

Coming Up

Bullet Tomorrow: Hawaii networks in far-away places letex-islanders stay close to the culture.
Bullet Friday: Your choice to stay or leave usually depends on how you define quality of life.

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