Waipahu resident Kristan Dunston thought she’d be useful in the islands.

Born in Northern California, she had spent more than a half-decade at First Union National Bank of Florida, which eventually became part of Wells Fargo. While there, she says she helped design and oversee a regional banking database and was the assistant vice president for human resources for 600 people.

In Hawaii, after taking time off to mother her children, she wanted to get back into HR because she found it so satisfying. But after taking a human resources test at an employment office, she says she was told she was too old for the position.

“They said I don’t have any Hawaii experience with human resources — as though I couldn’t sit down and learn that. And (the interviewer) said, ‘We have university students who would take a lot less, so I can’t send you to my clients in good conscience.’”

Street scene in downtown Honolulu 2.12.14 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Many people working in downtown Honolulu would get more money for the same work in expensive mainland cities.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Rather than pay a respectable salary to a seasoned veteran for such a position, Dunston says the company was looking to pay $11 per hour.

Several other recruiters rejected her for entry-level HR work, which she was ready to do to get her foot in the door. “They wouldn’t even consider me because they thought I wouldn’t be satisfied or that I would leave.”

The result: Dunston, who taught English when she and her military husband were stationed in Japan, has given up on her specialty and is working as a substitute teacher for elementary and intermediate students.

The Living Hawaii series has included interviews with many working people like Dunston. They lament their inability to use their education, training or extensive work experience in this state’s relatively small-scale and sometimes insular professional environment. This applies to many locals who moved away and returned, and to fresh-arriving outsiders.

“I don’t want to say it is career suicide, but you are putting up roadblocks for your career.” — Recruiter Doug Harb, on the decision to move to Hawaii for professional reasons

Many also lament salaries that don’t allow them to get by in Hawaii as well as they might elsewhere. It isn’t a coincidence. Hawaii ranked dead last in 2013 in housing affordability, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development’s 2015 Assets and Opportunity Scorecard, which contrasted average annual pay in the state with rents and real estate prices.

Nearly 44 percent of homeowners and 56 percent of renters are heavily burdened by housing costs that consume more than 30 percent of their household income.

It is one of the elements of a professional reality in which people move to Hawaii to earn less, fork out a larger percentage of their income on lodging and then face off with the nation’s highest cost of living.

Living in Paradise Is Hard Work

Such downer data, which the series has explored previously, raises the question of why professionals move to Hawaii. Can it be a pragmatic step-ladder to greater career ambitions, or is it all about a quixotic, romantic desire to simply live the dream?

“If it is just career-driven and they are looking at Hawaii as a short-term part of their career plan, that isn’t someone who is going to lay down roots here,” explained Doug Harb, an executive recruiter in Honolulu. “I can name 20 other markets that will offer them more opportunities.”

On the flip side, professionals who think they are going to move to paradise and just chill out often discover that it requires a whole lot of hard work, networking and finagling to establish a presence here and get by.

From a career standpoint, a professional decision to head to Hawaii is usually a “risky move,” Harb said, given the mainland perception that people working in the islands are off the grid.

From a national perspective, such a move is almost never the best way to advance your career, said Harb, who is the president of Makai Search Group. “I don’t want to say it is career suicide, but you are putting up roadblocks for your career.”

Towering building with beachgoers enjoying the hot weather today.

Nearby beaches are alluring, but building a decent-paying professional career in Hawaii is hard work.

Part of the challenge comes from the fact that if things don’t work, professionals are on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and unable to spend their lunch break interviewing for the quality of jobs they might find in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle or the Bay Area.

With Harb’s not-so-cheery assessment in mind, one might ask how Hawaii can generate more good opportunities, including new jobs with higher salaries.

The question is pressing given that the longtime motors of Hawaii’s economy seem unlikely to bridge the divide between relatively low salaries and the very high cost of living that is squeezing much of the state’s middle class.

Tourism, the state’s main economic engine, creates many low-end jobs that, at best, allow locals to tread water, while many of the profits end up leaving the islands. The military, long a financial lifeline of sorts for Hawaii, does generate some very good salaries outside of the Armed Forces, but in these times of budgetary retraction almost no one is banking on major new funding for Hawaii.

A more promising prospect is increased spending on construction and infrastructure, given the billions of dollars being pumped into the Honolulu rail project, but that is hardly going to change the equation on salaries in the state.

So, where is substantive progress on salaries possible? After all, if people earned more money, they might spend more time enjoying the marvels of Hawaii and less time lamenting its high prices.

On a side note, it is clearly easier to increase incomes by stimulating new economic activity than it is to lower the overall cost of living in a place like Hawaii. Bringing down prices involves untying a messy knot of past decisions and out-of-date regulations while also honing efficiency, which can require individuals and companies to dramatically change their ways of doing things.

The longtime motors of Hawaii’s economy seem unlikely to bridge the divide between relatively low salaries and the very high cost of living.

And given the sharp upswing in the local and national employment market, unemployment has cascaded down to 5.5 percent, making it a logical time to generate more relatively comfortable salaries in Hawaii. So what if — through a combination of smart governance, deft collaboration and dynamic entrepreneurship — we could spawn a flurry of new middle-income jobs?

The question about how to generate new jobs with good salaries has an almost unlimited number of potential answers, depending on the creativity of entrepreneurs, especially if policymakers facilitate such efforts — or at least don’t block them.

But the most important step would almost certainly be stirring a sea change in employers’ mentalities.

Charting a New Path

Hawaii needs innovation. But there’s a problem: Innovation requires a certain mindset — one that has often been lacking.

When Robbie Melton was just entering the workplace as a fresh-faced young temp for a company whose name she doesn’t remember, she was placed in front of a typewriter and told to work. Melton recalls asking her boss a simple question: Why aren’t we using computers?

If the company trained staff in the new technology, she was told, the employees would deserve raises. The takeaway was simple: If employers avoided innovation, they could avoid raising some salaries.

That was about a quarter-century ago, Melton says, but such calcified logic remains prevalent in one form or another in many local professional circles. And it is one of the many factors that help keep Hawaii salaries lower than they should be.

More companies in Hawaii need to realize they can improve themselves by offering more competitive salaries, rather than just spending the minimum to fill a slot, according to Harb. When done right, he said, investing in top talent pays off. He said it’s not as if his clients are saying they can’t pay salaries that are competitive. “I’ve never had an executive say, ‘We can’t afford it.’”

They can, but will they? In some particularly forward-looking sectors, some probably would.

At the helm of the Hawaii Tech Development Corporation for the last year, Melton has been leading the state agency tasked with using technology to stimulate prosperity around the state, attract innovators and businesses, and create jobs so locals can afford to stay in Hawaii.

Since last summer, Melton has been collaborating with an array of partners in the public and private sectors on what she hopes will be a game-changing proposition. The idea is to create 80,000 technology jobs in Hawaii that pay $80,000 or more in the next 15 years. “You hear that the jobs aren’t here, (people) can live so much better on the mainland, they can buy a bigger house there, the food costs are lower. But a lot of them want to stay here,” said Melton. “That’s why we made the 80/80 challenge. We need to raise the salaries here and not try to do things on the cheap.”

She went on: “In Hawaii, people need to earn a living wage. If both spouses in a couple have to work two or three jobs — or even if a single person needs to — that is not really making a living.” This targeted salary range is, she says, a living wage at the managerial and executive level.


“When people are complaining that, ‘My kid can’t find a job and they have to go to the mainland,’ if we create this innovative environment for interesting and creative work, they don’t need to leave,” she said.

There is a seductive logic to the nascent effort — innovation jobs tend to be better remunerated, partly because employees seem more likely to understand that quality is  crucial.

Regardless of the ultimate success or failure of the 80/80 project, Hawaii would do well to pay attention to the diagnosis.

“I know managers who need to work two or three jobs because they have kids. On the East Coast, you don’t see that,” Melton notes. “We need to raise salaries so people can have a real lifestyle. If you look at San Francisco, it costs a lot of money, but they have much higher salaries.”

At the very least, the proposal shows that some people recognize the salary problem and are trying to chart a path toward something resembling a holistic solution.

Results will likely come too late for Hawaii to benefit people like Kristan Dunston, but they might help the young children she is teaching now.

Do you have a compelling story about the human impact of the cost of living, whether about you or someone you know? If you want to write it up, or tell it to me, please drop me a note at epape@civilbeat.com.

And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.

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