Hawaiʻi faces a critical need for workforce development (WFD) to secure the state’s future. This briefing paper summarizes our understanding of the sector, highlighting the challenges and opportunities, and offers recommendations to address them.
The Importance of Workforce Development in Hawaiʻi
Addressing Hawaiʻi’s “living wage gap”, defined as the difference between the state’s median wage 1 and a sustainable living wage 2,3, is crucial for preventing brain drain and promoting economic growth. This gap is primarily due to the high cost of living and the low wages in Hawaiʻi’s dominant sectors such as hospitality and retail.
In the next decade, Hawaiʻi can address this issue through targeted WFD efforts by building effective career pathways to “relatively high-demand” living wage jobs. However, in the long-term, Hawaiʻi must diversify to higher-wage sectors to address this fundamental issue in its economy and workforce.
Understanding the Challenges in the Current WFD Efforts
Despite numerous WFD initiatives in Hawaiʻi, several issues hinder their effectiveness:
- Siloed efforts: Fragmented initiatives in WFD, with incomplete understanding of the labor market, past and parallel efforts, lead to over-investment in some areas and underinvestment in others.
- Lack of evidence-based investment: Funding is often allocated without considering prior evidence of success, particularly in career pathway development.
- Absence of coalitions: There is no effective coalition between the providers of education, technical training, wraparound services, and funding. Unlike in the continental US, individual service providers in Hawaiʻi are either too small or capacity constrained to provide “bundled services” needed by the community for effective WFD.
- One-size-fits-all approach: Current initiatives often fail to provide targeted solutions for specific communities, which could yield a much greater impact.
- No champions: Unlike many other states 4, 5., Hawaiʻi has not had a Governor or a top policymaker advocating for WFD as a cornerstone of their legacy.
Career Pathways: The Key to Living Wage Jobs in Hawaiʻi
Investing in WFD programs that target in-demand living wage occupations can help address Hawaiʻi’s living wage gap. Although, most entry-level workers will not make a living wage, by identifying and promoting career pathways to living wage occupations, we can make them more accessible to all workers.
Meeting Employer Needs is Fundamental
Employers in Hawaiʻi often struggle to find local candidates, especially in managerial or more specialized positions. While “equity” is important to many policy makers and funders, WFD efforts must prioritize near-term employer needs in their program design to avoid developing elaborate programs that don’t go anywhere.
Designing Effective Career Pathways
To ensure success, career pathways must be designed with industry- and demographic-specific considerations in mind. This includes addressing financial barriers, improving basic skills, and providing targeted support to underrepresented groups. It will require an effective coalition of educators, trainers, service providers, policy makers, and funders working together to meet the needs of Hawaii’s employers and communities.
Aligning Education with Market Demand
Educational institutions, particularly community colleges, must adapt their programs to align with the changing labor market. By offering flexible programming, industry-recognized credentials, and work-based learning opportunities, they can better prepare students for the workforce.
Role of Data in Workforce Development
Developing a shared understanding of Hawaiʻi’s labor market challenges is essential. By utilizing data to track both activity and outcomes, policymakers can make informed decisions about WFD initiatives.
Results-Based Investments in Workforce Development
Funding for WFD should prioritize scaling proven models and investing in organizations with a track record of success. This will ensure that resources are directed toward initiatives that yield the best results for Hawaiʻi’s workforce.
Hawaiʻi can overcome its workforce development challenges through concerted efforts from public, private, and civic sectors. By addressing these issues, we can create a brighter future for Hawaiʻi’s residents. We invite Hawaii’s employers to guide and support local workforce development programs.