Hawaiian Electric Co. isn’t hurting for job openings.

With entry-level positions starting at $18 to $20 an hour, it also offers competitive pay far exceeding the state’s minimum wage of $10.10 per hour.

But what HECO, the state’s fifth-largest employer, does lack is a solid applicant pool of local residents. Out of 250 candidates who recently took a mandatory aptitude test that assesses logic and problem-solving skills — the same one used by many Fortune 500 companies — fewer than 20 passed.

And among roughly 100 candidates who recently took a cognitive test developed by the Edison Energy Institute that’s commonly given by utility companies for plant operator jobs, fewer than 30 people passed.

Board of Education chair Catherine Payne, center, was one of those who attended a business-education community event to discuss building a better K-12 education pathway to the workforce. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat






Applicants were mostly residents with a high school diploma who saw the company’s job postings and applied, said Scott Seu, HECO’s senior vice president for public affairs.

Seu was at a community meeting at the Hawaii Board of Education headquarters Friday. The noontime event brought together DOE officials, including the current (and one former) superintendent, business leaders and education advocates to brainstorm what to do about closing the career skills gap and “navigation” gap among students.

Statistics like those HECO found in its hiring process are alerting business and education leaders in Hawaii to the crucial need to develop a stronger pathway from the K-12 education system to the companies who will rely on this next generation of workers.

“Kids have no clue that we as employers have jobs for them,” said Terry George, the president and CEO of Harold K.L. Castle Foundation.

“What’s missing is a statewide structure to connect employers with educators and students,” said George, who co-led the event with BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne, in conjunction with the mission of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, a focus of which is education. “Our members want local people to fill high-demand, high-wage jobs.”

Strengthening career pathways remains a focal point for the DOE as it looks to develop a new 10-year strategic plan.

“Career and technical education” is the new buzz phrase that education leaders hope will become more steeped in school curricula statewide. The career “academy” model has filtered into about half of the state’s several dozen public high schools.

Completion of a CTE pathway — meaning fulfilling two or three credits of elective coursework in areas like health services, industrial and engineering technology and arts and communication — has increased in recent years, exceeding the DOE’s 2020 target.

But giving students more meaningful opportunities to apply skillsets from the classroom in actual internships or externships at local companies and getting a feel for what that job entails is still a goal for business and education leaders.

Terry George, president and CEO of Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, center, says not enough Hawaii students are aware of the kinds of economic and job opportunities available here and how to access them. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat





Hawaiian Electric, for instance, offered a summer internship program for local students at its Kahe Power Plant in Kapolei but halted it two years ago due to a waning level of participation.

“The amount of effort and cost wasn’t paying off,” said Seu, adding that the program, at the very least, sparked an interest among local young people in the kinds of employment the company offered.

Friday’s informal discussions brought together representatives from companies like Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiian Airlines and the Hawaii Medical Service Association, where former DOE superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, who was in attendance, is now a senior vice president.

The only group conspicuously missing during the event was students.

The need to train the local workforce is evident. Hawaiian Airlines, one of the state’s largest employers with more than 7,000 employees, anticipates between half to two-thirds of its workers retiring over the next decade.

Aircraft mechanics and pilots are the positions most in need of local talent, but even something as simple as the opportunity to accrue hours for pilot training in Hawaii remains a barrier to employment, Friday’s event revealed.

Seu said the majority of job candidates tend to be from Hawaii, but the company sees a growing number of mainland candidates for the more highly skilled positions.

People invested in Hawaii’s future hope to turn that around.

Christine “Kili” Namauu, left, a Board of Education member, talked about the importance of teaching skills that align to workforce. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat


“Many employers have told me that people who are from Hawaii and grew up here — even if they moved away for a bit and came back — mesh more easily into the organizational culture of that business,” George said.

Payne said working on building a viable workforce for the state is a conversation that’s been happening between education and industry leaders.

The goal, she said, is to combine the notes and ideas jotted on big white papers at Friday’s meeting and present a report to the full board, but also to keep the conversation going.

DOE superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who was hired from the mainland two years ago, said the importance of the education-business pipeline was much discussed when she was interviewing for the job.

“The board that hired me had brought in a lot of industry partners,” said Kishimoto. “How do we build these partnerships to support a curriculum that aligns with readiness?”

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