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Tech Exile — Low Salaries and the High Cost of Living Keep Me From Moving Back to Hawaii
A local woman who is earning a Ph.D. in computer science on the mainland is the kind of young professional the start-up community wants to lure back to the islands. Why isn't she coming back?

About the Author

  • Valerie Galluzzi
    Valerie Galluzzi
    Valerie Galluzzi, a Punahou graduate, is earning her Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Iowa.

After reading the article, “Living Hawaii: Can We Overcome the Problem of Low Salaries?” I wanted to write a bit on my own story.

I am one of those “tech” types that the start-up and academic communities talk about trying to bring back to the islands.

My mother’s side of the family has been in the islands since the 1800s. I grew up there and feel a deep connection to Honolulu. However I will never live there.

My dream is to be a professor and teach computer science to undergraduate students. Lucky for me, enrollment in computer science programs has exploded in the past few years and many programs are dealing with a threefold increase in the number of majors this year.

When I started looking for jobs last fall there were a lot of tenure-track positions available — but there weren’t any I could find in Hawaii, especially since the University of Hawaii has a hiring freeze.

I just completed my job search and accepted an offer for a tenure-track position at a college in Indiana, a top undergraduate engineering school with small class sizes and engaged students and faculty.

It is a dream job. It even has substantial breaks around holidays so I can fly home to visit my family in Honolulu for Thanksgiving, Christmas and maybe even a bit during the summer.

Out of curiosity I plugged my salary into a cost of living calculator that adjusts the buying power of a salary depending on prices in a different city. My salary in Indiana will buy much more than in Hawaii. To have comparable buying power in Honolulu, I would need to earn about $150,000.

Until Honolulu offers salaries that are in line with its cost of living, the brain drain will continue as people with options seek out better opportunities.

Do professors at the University of Hawaii enjoy starting salaries of $150,000? The answer is no. According to their own website, assistant professors earn about $75,000 annually, with men earning $5,000 more than women.

Comparable institutions pay the same amount in salary — but in areas with a much lower cost of living.

One thing you might not know about academia is that professors at research institutions, like UH, command higher salaries because they are expected to obtain grant money. (In the position I have accepted, I will not have to write grants). This means that non-research schools in the same area will, in many cases, pay less.

While I was hitting the on-campus job interviews circuit, one faculty member told me that when he was on the job market many years ago he received a cold call about a position at UH. He hadn’t applied for a job or taken part in a phone or on-campus interview. It was only after receiving the offer — especially the salary figure — that he understood the aggressive hiring methods. The salary for the job was barely enough to live on.

Connections Valerie Galluzzi

Valerie Galluzzi is far from the mild weather in the islands, but there are many more professional offerings and they tend to afford a better living standard.

Courtesy of Valerie Galluzzi

Nowadays the academic market is flooded with people who have doctorates — the computer science field is a rare exception — so, surely, no one at UH is cold-calling prospective candidates any more. But they still offer rock-bottom salaries, at least when the cost of living is factored in.

The cost of living extends far beyond the realm of low-income earners and reaches all the way to upper middle class positions like professorships.

I would love to move back to Hawaii. Unfortunately to be in Honolulu I would have to accept an effective 50-percent pay cut.

That is in line with what I have heard from other locals who have considered the move back home to the islands.

Until Honolulu offers salaries that are in line with its cost of living, the brain drain will continue as people with options seek out better opportunities.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, click on the red button with the pencil and share it through Connections, or drop me a note at epape@civilbeat.com.

If you want to comment on this or other Connections stories, join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii. You can also continue the broader conversation there and discuss practical and political solutions.