Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Hawaii's Brain Drain

Island returnees
bucking trend

After leaving Hawaii to
pursue careers, some are coming
back despite economic uncertainty

State's demographics changing

By Rob Perez


Adam Witherspoon turned down a nearly $50,000-a-year job at a big Texas oil company so he could return to Hawaii.

He came back even though he faced the prospect of being jobless.

Victor McCarty is doing the same thing.

A new graduate from the University of Idaho law school, McCarty declined an offer from an Idaho law firm so he can return to the islands.

He arrives today with no employment lined up but an overwhelming desire to live in the state where he turned his life around.

Calling Hawaii expatriates

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.

Bullet Brain Drain Archive

If there is such a thing as a reverse brain drain, Witherspoon and McCarty would make notable poster guys for the cause. They wanted to return to Hawaii so badly they risked floundering in the state's ailing job market just to do so.

Never mind the lower salaries. The high cost of living. The slim employment opportunities.

To folks like Witherspoon and McCarty, the trade-offs are well worth the risks.

"The feeling I get when I'm in Hawaii, it's second to none," said McCarty in a phone interview from his parents' home in Idaho. "There's a connection I have with living in the islands. It's a special place."

While the state's sputtering economy and high cost of living have driven many young people to greener pastures on the mainland -- a trend prominently profiled in the media -- others quietly have bucked the so-called brain drain.

Most, though, return with jobs in hand. Some arrive with nothing in hand, hoping to quickly land a job in a market that has been steadily losing jobs since 1993. Those arriving jobless, such as Witherspoon and McCarty, usually are single with no family to support, giving them more flexibility to roll the dice in a declining market.

Witherspoon's gamble paid off.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Adam Witherspoon talks with co-worker Cindy Aguiar
at Courier Corp. of Hawaii. Witherspoon, a former Hawaii
resident, turned down a job with a Fortune 500 company
in the mainland to return to the islands.

A few days after his arrival last month, he was hired by Courier Corp., a Honolulu-based delivery company, as a computer support administrator. Although he's earning significantly less than what he could be making in Texas, where he moved following his 1997 graduation from the University of Hawaii, Witherspoon isn't bothered.

"For me, this is where I belong," said the 30-year-old Houston native who first moved to Oahu in 1987. "It took living on the mainland again to realize that."

Witherspoon said he was prepared to work at just about any job so he could return to Honolulu. But because he has a background in computers, a marketable skill even in the slowest of job markets, he figured he eventually would find work in that field.

Still, Witherspoon acknowledged taking a risk. His initial employment inquiries from the mainland and a posting on a popular job-seeking Web site generated no leads. He bought his one-way ticket to Hawaii anyway.

"I went out on a limb," said Witherspoon, who stayed with friends when he first arrived. "But if I had to work on a cruise boat or do something else for a while, I was willing to do that."

McCarty likewise understands the gamble he's taking. It's even greater than Witherspoon's because the legal profession has been hard hit by the economic slowdown. Many firms have cut staffing. Few are hiring lawyers fresh out of law school.

McCarty, 40, doesn't sound fazed.

"I guess I'm going on faith more than anything," said the former California resident, who first moved here in 1990. "If a person believes in something enough and is willing to take the risk, things will work out."

McCarty's affinity for Hawaii is much like Witherspoon's. Both are drawn to the climate, the natural beauty, the friendliness of the people. They like the casual feel of the islands.

But McCarty also feels a special bond because this is where he overcame a drug problem, homelessness and the death of his wife in the early 1990s. "The people in Hawaii were tremendously supportive. This is my way of giving back."

No one keeps statistics on how many people return to Hawaii without jobs.

But that people are doing so even in today's job market is seen by some economists as a promising sign, consistent with sporadic indicators that suggest an improving economy.

"Who's going to take a gamble and come to Hawaii without a job unless they have a feeling they're going to score one?" asked Paul Brewbaker, Bank of Hawaii's chief economist.

"It's definitely not as long a shot as it was three or four years ago."

Despite all the gloom-and-doom economic news, some businesses -- particularly high-tech ones -- are thriving, not just surviving, and hiring to accommodate their growth, Yuka Nagashima, president of the Internet service provider LavaNet, told Hawaii students attending a mainland symposium recently. She said LavaNet is one such company.

Leroy Laney, a Hawaii Pacific University economics professor, said people leaving a booming mainland economy to come to a sluggish one without a guaranteed job aren't basing their decisions on rational economic factors.

But the appeal of the islands can be a powerful magnet in good or bad times, Laney said. "We tend to underestimate it if we've lived here for years."

That appeal is what's drawing Chip Hawkins and his family back to Hawaii.

But Hawkins, an electrical engineer, is coming back with a job. He is in the final stages of negotiations with a local defense contractor and hopes to make the move this summer, along with his wife and three children.

The Hawkinses lived in Hawaii for three years before moving to Atlanta last summer. They left for the typical reasons: better job opportunities, better schools, an ability to buy a home, a lower cost of living.

They are returning even though Hawkins and his wife purchased a 3,000-square-foot home just last summer; even though he'll be earning less once Hawaii's cost of living is considered; and even though he's giving up a good job with Sprint Corp.

But the family, including each of the three children, ages 4, 6 and 10, decided they wanted to return, Hawkins said.

"When you add everything up, as far as quality of life, Hawaii has so much more to offer than anywhere else on the mainland," Hawkins said in a phone interview. "When you add everything up, about the only thing this place has to offer is more material things. Not that that isn't important. But there comes a point in your life when that isn't everything. We've just come to realize we'd much rather live on less and be happier in Hawaii."

Reporter Rob Perez can be contacted by e-mail at

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