The tragedy of Hawaii is that our greatest export has become talented young people.

With rising costs of living, limited housing and a tough market for good jobs, moving to the mainland is an increasingly popular choice for many young people after graduating from high school or college.

Though many boast about how “great” the economy is – measured, supposedly, by the booming stock market – for young people, prosperity isn’t defined by the share price of Berkshire Hathaway or glowing government statistics, but by how much it will cost and how long it will take to own a piece of the American dream for themselves.

Farrington high School graduation ceremony. 30 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Farrington High School’s 2015 commencement. How many of these graduates are still in Hawaii? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

These days, dreams are more like mirages in Hawaii. The traditional method of working hard, saving up and winning in life just doesn’t work as inflation and income inequality rig the market against people entering the work force.

Yes, there will always be young Hawaii residents who will rise up as superstar athletes, internationally acclaimed music artists, or genius entrepreneur inventors of the next big thing, but the American dream is supposed to be for everyone who will work hard, not just the exceptionally gifted.

‘Titanic Shift In Workforce Development’

The 21st century exodus of young people represents a vote of no-confidence in the Aloha State’s future, and deprives Hawaii of the people we desperately need to reform our islands.

State Rep. John Mizuno, chair of the House Health Committee, worries about the employment opportunities available to young people and warns, “Hawaii needs a titanic shift in workforce development,” adding that “Hawaii is graying faster than most states.”

Panos Prevedouros, chairman of the UH Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, says four dimensions are vital to retaining young people in Hawaii: “satisfying, well paying jobs; quality of infrastructure and built environment; housing availability and price; and the cost of living.”

Hawaii policymakers constantly claim to be for “the keiki.” Now is the time to prove it.

Hawaii’s political leaders have not paid attention or had sympathy for lower-income earning young adults, Prevedouros says.

Keli`i Akina, an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and Grassroot Institute of Hawaii president, has been showcasing a “Why We Left Hawaii” series.

“For starters, instead of raising taxes, we need to be reducing the tax burden on the average resident,” Akina says. “We also need to stop the way various state and county fees have been climbing up to pay for new projects. We need to encourage investment and entrepreneurship, and that means reducing the tax and regulatory burden on businesses. Finally, we need to make more land available for new housing, and streamline the approval process for new development. Otherwise, we will continue to lose people to states with better job opportunities and a lower cost of living.”

My Own Ideas

Here are some short-term policy suggestins that could help young people now:

• Implement a pilot project where people 25 and younger who make less than $50,000 a year pay no personal income taxes.

Having worked at the Legislature for many years, I recognize that there is an Establishment freak-out whenever anyone suggests tweaking taxes. However, one workaround might be to make this a pilot project with a 10-year sunset provision (with option for renewal).

Young people are especially vulnerable to market mood swings and economic stresses. Putting even a few dollars back into the pockets of someone in an entry-level job or still in school means extra money they can save, apply to rent or buy food with.

As someone who grew up in a state that had no personal income taxes, I can tell you that I had plenty of financial flexibility both in and immediately after college.

• Encourage more telecommuting.

Young people today are the most tech-savvy, connected generation America has ever seen. They also value personal independence and the freedom to set their own schedule or roam about. Both government and private businesses in Hawaii could do their part to make working and living in Hawaii more lucrative by letting more employees telecommute.

This would have several immediate benefits. First, in places like Oahu where traffic is awful, fewer cars would be on the road, reducing wear on the streets and improving the commute for those who must drive to work.

Second, this would allow people to spend less on transportation costs, and permit the comfort of working at home. Do you really need someone to sit for 8 hours a day in a cubicle staring at a computer when we have real-time collaborative software tools?

Also, physical offices could be considerably smaller, requiring less overhead and maintenance costs.

• Emphasize cooperative education in public schools.

In today’s economy, education needs to be the “handshake” between school and career. One way to help young people might be to have a competitive co-op program between the state Department of Education and the Department of Human Resources where high school students could have the option of going to school and getting experience working in civil service.

They could learn valuable real-world skills like accounting/finance, management, science, health care and engineering.

A student who successfully completes three years in the co-op program could, upon graduating from high school, be offered the opportunity to enter the civil service. Instead of high school graduates having to spend years in menial jobs getting experience, they could immediately fill vital vacancies in our public sector and be paid competitively.

These are just a few options, but something needs to be done.

Hawaii policymakers constantly claim to be for “the keiki.” Now is the time to prove it. We can’t afford to lose any more people to the mainland.

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