Hawaii’s economy can seem like a jumble of contradictions.

Yes, job openings are plentiful in a state with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. And Hawaii’s median household income is about one-third higher than the country as a whole.

But it costs so much to live in Hawaii that families making what sound like solid middle-class salaries elsewhere can often barely get by. And opportunities for higher-paying jobs outside tourism remain limited.

Thanks to a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation, Civil Beat will spend the next year reporting on critical questions about where the local economy is headed in a series called “Hawaii’s Changing Economy.”

Is the ongoing boom in tourism, which provides 1 in 5 jobs in the state, sustainable — or even desirable? What kind of drag does the state’s punishing cost of living place on the ability for businesses to grow — and to keep talented people in the state? What are the best opportunities for diversifying the economy — and what are the biggest obstacles standing in the way?

Shipping and transportation, which pay relatively high wages, represent one of the areas economists believe can spur more economic growth in Hawaii. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In our kick-off story Tuesday about expanding the economy beyond tourism, Dawn Lippert, CEO of Elemental Excelerator, a nonprofit that funds energy related startups, summed up Hawaii’s dilemma like this: “In order for people to be able to live in the nice places we’re building, and to live in the islands at all, we’re going to have to have higher-paying jobs.”

Along the way, we’ll report on potential solutions, such as promising startups, innovative attempts to rethink traditional businesses practices and efforts to recruit and keep workers.

And we’ll explore whether government-funded efforts to spur business development in areas like high technology and movie production have really worked.

Senior business reporter Stewart Yerton, who started at Civil Beat two years ago, will lead the project.

Stewart Yerton Business Report Hono Civil Beat1. 17 april 2017
Stewart Yerton, Civil Beat’s senior business reporter, will lead the new series “Hawaii’s Changing Economy.” Cory

“I hope this series will prompt a meaningful, practical discussion about Hawaii’s economic future: What kind of economy do we want and how we can cultivate it?” Yerton said.

HCF’s $100,000 grant to Civil Beat for reporting on Hawaii’s economy during the next 12 months is part of the foundation’s broader CHANGE Framework project.

“We’re working to create a framework so people can better understand how their communities are performing across six basic sectors,” said Micah Kane, HCF’s chief executive officer.

“We (Civil Beat and HCF) both believe that a more informed community is a more engaged community that will result in a more resilient community. The byproduct is a collective accountability for ourselves and those that make decisions for Hawaii.”

HCF’s CHANGE Framework project is focused on six areas: community and economy, health and wellness, arts and culture, the environment, education and government and civic engagement. The project’s efforts include collecting and analyzing data, identifying gaps and opportunities for action in each area and promoting partnerships and collaborative work on these issues.

Civil Beat retains complete editorial independence and control in deciding what stories are covered. As with all of our grants, Civil Beat fully adheres to the set of guiding principles established by the American Press Institute that ensures ethical journalism funding.

If you’ve got story ideas, questions you’d like answered or other suggestions for “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” series, send them to Yerton at syerton@civilbeat.org, or to Jim Simon, managing editor at jsimon@civilbeat.org.

Read Part 1 of the series here.

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