It happens thousands of times in Hawaii each day. You’re at the end of your vacation, sipping a mai tai, watching the waves, and dreading the five hour flight back to your mainland life when it pops into your head, “I should find a job and live here!”

But how difficult is it to find a job in Hawaii? Does the fantasy mesh with the reality? And, more importantly, what do Hawaii-based employers look for in a mainland candidate?

Obviously, Hawaii is rich with hourly, service-oriented jobs in the hospitality industry. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, tourism accounted for nearly $12 billion in 2012 and supported 154,000 jobs.

But, Hawaii also needs professional managers and executives, and is the base for large corporations like Hawaiian Airlines, which pulled in over $2 billion in revenues last year, and Bank of Hawaii, with over two thousand employees. Hawaii also supports a large healthcare industry, plus thousands of jobs in the environmental, biotech, telecom, and retail sectors, not to mention many government and military contractors.

While there are a variety of options, finding a role and relocating to Hawaii isn’t as easy as switching jobs on the mainland, where it basically boils down to sending a few resumes and scheduling an afternoon dental appointment (ahem) while you go on an interview across town.

Doug Harb, owner of Honolulu-based executive recruitment firm Makai Search Group, has a lot of insight in this area. Harb has over a decade’s worth of airline and hospitality experience across Hawaii, the US mainland, and Canada, and knows firsthand the personal rewards of relocating to Hawaii and the professional challenges in finding employees who fit within Hawaii’s distinct culture and remote location.

“As a recruiter, the easiest sell in the world is to tell a candidate that I have a role in Hawaii,” explained Harb. “But they really need to be prepared to adapt to, and fit in with, the local work culture.”

It’s something that, in Harb’s view, needs to be taken seriously.

“When I interview a mainland candidate,” Harb continued, “I spend the first hour talking about the realities of living in Hawaii. It’s expensive, real estate is pricey, as are groceries and gasoline.
There’s the isolation factor because you’re a five hour flight to anywhere, and some people might not be able to handle the island fever.”

There’s also a touch of suspicion from local employers.

“I won’t even work with candidates until they have a Hawaii address on their resume,” mentioned another Honolulu-based recruiter who wished to remain anonymous.

“People vacation here, they fall in love with the beauty and the pace of life, then they go back home and send out a dozen resumes,” the recruiter continued. “If an employer is interested, the candidate is faced with taking two or three days off of work to fly out for an interview, which usually weeds out most of them. Or, maybe they get a job, move here, are hit with the high cost of living and the isolation and they move back within a year or two.”

“It happens so often,” the recruiter added, “many Hawaii employers figure, ‘Why bother?'”

On the professional side, Harb added, “Hawaii’s business culture is definitely unique and different from anywhere in North America, and anyone relocating here has to adapt to this work style. You won’t get very far if you come in trying to change it. That’s why fit is so important.”

Harb has another aspect to consider: Living in Hawaii is not a continuous vacation.

“It has to be a good fit because Monday through Friday, from 8-to-5, you’re in an office that could be located anywhere,” warned Harb. “But, then again, there are few places in the world where, in just a few minutes, you can go from standing at your desk to standing on a wave.”

If you’re still convinced that Hawaii is the place for you, then the job situation looks pretty good. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics had Hawaii’s unemployment rate at just 4.5% for July, the fourth lowest in the country and well below the 7.4% national average.

If you’re a service worker, Hawaii is always hiring drivers, wait staff, cooks, surfing instructors, and other tourism and hospitality workers, plus construction workers to keep up with a tourism industry that grew by nearly 7% in the first half of 2013. Earlier this year, the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported that hospitality added 1,500 jobs in April alone while the construction industry added 3,300 jobs in the same month.

For professionals, Harb says that he’s seeing a need for workers with IT and analytical expertise as the global economy becomes more digital and data-centric. He also sees a need for executives who can manage those types of workers.

For entrepreneurial types, Hawaii has a small-but-growing startup community, was recently named the eighth most entrepreneurial state by the Kauffman Foundation, and has seen the State inject millions of dollars into venture capital funds and startup accelerators.

But remember, Hawaii is a special place that requires a special type of person to stay for the long haul, and the community is good at keeping that bar set high.

“We take pride in trying to pick and choose who moves here,” concluded Harb, only partially tongue-in-cheek. “But ultimately, Hawaii is a great place to live and work, as long as your eyes are wide open and you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

*This column was first published on HuffPost Hawaii.

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About the Author

  • Jason Rushin
    Jason Rushin has nearly 20 years of experience in software marketing, consulting, and engineering, and currently works as a marketing consultant for high tech clients, both locally and in Silicon Valley. Prior to relocating to Hawaii in 2010, he led marketing at several Silicon Valley software startups. Once in Hawaii, he launched and subsequently sold his own startup, and has been an active supporter of Hawaii’s small-but-growing startup ecosystem. Jason holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.