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Pick a few people at random from Hawaii’s huge army of bar and restaurant workers, and chances are you’ll encounter someone like Mariah Lynn: a young person working multiple jobs, enjoying Hawaii, but not seeing a long-term future here.
It’s a defining aspect of Hawaii’s economy: an abundance of lower-paying service jobs that keeps people employed but not necessarily able to live comfortably over the long term in a state with the nation’s highest cost of living.
It also answers a question The Washington Post asked in the winter of 2018, when the state was beginning its perplexing run of record-low unemployment coupled with an out-migration of people: “Hawaii has record-low unemployment and it’s not a frozen hellscape,” the newspaper asked. “Why are people leaving?”
Peter Fuleky studies Hawaii’s economy as an associate professor with the University of Hawaii’s Department of Economics and the UH Economic Research Organization. He says that while hospitality industry jobs don’t generally pay well, “on the other end of the scale are construction jobs, which tend to be higher paying jobs.”
Fuleky notes that the hospitality jobs have remained a major part of the economy despite considerable discussion about diversifying.
“It looks like that didn’t really happen in the last expansion,” he said. “If anything, tourism has become even more prominent than it was before.”
Recent opportunities for growth in technology jobs, including the Thirty Meter Telescope and renewable energy projects, have been met with opposition that could scare away potential investment, he said.
Another issue involves the coronavirus and the effect it could have on Hawaii’s tourism industry. A major blow to tourism could prompt policymakers to renew efforts to diversify the economy, he said. On Tuesday, UHERO issued a report predicting a 10% decline in visitor spending this year because of coronavirus, as well as a loss of 3,900 jobs.
Despite such uncertainties, projections from the University of Hawaii Community Colleges, which are not affiliated with UHERO, call for much of the same when it comes to job growth over the next decade.
The top sectors for employment will remain pretty static, according to projections from the Hawaii Career Explorer data portal run by the colleges.
In other words, the future will look a lot like the past. Service sectors like hospitality, health care, retail, construction and transportation will remain Hawaii’s top employers.
Hawaii’s workforce declined in the past few years, from about 683,000 in 2017 to about 665,000 in 2019.
To be sure, some of those jobs pay good, living wages. But the sorts of better-paying science and technology jobs that Hawaii has longed for have never materialized in large numbers and aren’t projected to grow much.
Meanwhile, Hawaii business and political leaders are supporting a legislative package intended to ease the financial burdens on residents, with proposals for a higher minimum wage and expanded child care.
Without many new jobs, such changes are important for a state where the cost of living is the nation’s highest when income is adjusted for prices here. The result, according to a recent survey of Hawaii residents, is that less than a third of the state’s 1.12 million adults are financially healthy. More than two-thirds show signs of financial stress, and many cope by working multiple jobs, living with relatives and dipping into savings.
On top of everything else, automation looms as a risk to eventually eliminate jobs across the economy, especially in the hospitality industry.
It’s no wonder Hawaii has suffered three straight years of declining population. The job numbers bear this out: Hawaii’s workforce declined in the past few years, from about 683,000 in 2017 to about 665,000 in 2019, according to data compiled by UHERO.
A look at a handful of occupations expected to be among the state’s fastest growing in the next decade provides snapshots of what life is like for people in some of these occupations that make up the backbone of Hawaii’s economy.
Some of the workers are adapting to changes in the delivery of services, some are retraining to switch careers and some are fighting for more through the unions that have been a key to building Hawaii’s middle class.
At the same time, at least one of the profiled workers doesn’t plan to be here forever. The reason: it’s just too expensive.
Given Hawaii’s 10 million annual visitors, it’s hardly surprising that the hospitality sector employs more workers than any other.
More than 112,000 people were employed in the broad accommodations and food services sector in 2019, according to UH. That’s projected to grow to just over 121,000 jobs by 2027, an increase of more than 7% or more than 8,300 jobs.
The good news is that few of the entry level jobs require a college education, there’s a high demand for workers and steady turnover means opportunities for new workers and at least lateral mobility. The bad news: relatively few jobs pay enough by themselves to support a family in a state with the nation’s highest cost of living.
Although the broad sector includes more than a dozen industries, including businesses like caterers and campgrounds, full-service restaurants are the biggest employers. The restaurants are projected to add another 4,152 jobs over the next decade, compared to 1,690 new hotel jobs, with positions for servers making the largest gains.
For Mariah Lynn, it’s a great temporary situation.
Working two restaurant jobs provides enough money to cover her half of an apartment in Kahala, which amounts to $1,050 per month. The tips she brings home after a shift helps with cash flow. And after covering her monthly expenses, Lynn has enough left over at the end of the month to chip away at her $4,000 in credit card debt.
The cost of living is high, but she makes a lot more in Hawaii than she did in her native Idaho. In Idaho she got $4 an hour as a server; here she gets $9.35. Sure, hours can be long. Some days she works 12 hours; there’s lunch at J.J. Dolan’s in Chinatown, and then it’s on to a cashier job at C.J.’s New York Style Deli at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki.
It’s a common routine in Hawaii, working two jobs.
In fact, the Hawaii Financial Health Pulse survey found that just under a quarter of Hawaii residents surveyed, or 23%, work more than one job. And it’s especially common for leisure and hospitality workers like Lynn. But, Lynn said, the work’s not too hard.
“Honestly, I like it because it’s pretty quick, easy money, for the most part,” she said.
And there’s plenty of free stuff to do when she’s not working at nearby beaches like Sandy Beach and Makapuu. “When I’m in the ocean, I’m the happiest,” she said.
Still, Lynn doesn’t expect to spend the rest of her life working at restaurants in Honolulu. She’s a trained cosmetologist, licensed back home. But she’s decided to spare the expense of getting her Hawaii license because she doesn’t plan to stay here forever.
Not that she plans to leave soon: Lynn’s passion now is traveling, and Hawaii is the perfect jumping off spot for traveling to Asia, she said.
Don’t expect much growth in the retail trade sector employment over the next decade.
Retail establishments are projected to keep employing thousands of people. But the growing popularity of online shopping and risks posed by automation, among other factors, combine to spell muted projections for growth. The number of retail jobs is expected to rise to just over 74,600 by 2029 from about 72,200, an anemic 3% increase.
Despite the growing popularity of online shopping, there’s one area of retail that will still need people to fill orders and stock shelves. That’s the grocery business, including supermarkets and smaller stores. The UH career data predicts 12% growth for stock clerks and order fillers, an increase to 2,262 jobs from 2,015.
It’s not just employees of the grocery stores that stock the shelves. Sometimes its food distributors or even manufacturers. Take SKY Kombucha, a Waimanalo-based company that brews the increasingly popular bubbly fermented tea flavored with local produce like ginger, lilikoi and mint.
Brian Schneider has a full-time job delivering SKY’s drinks around Oahu in the company’s refrigerated van. Customers include big supermarkets like Safeway down to individuals that buy kombucha in 5-gallon kegs.
Schneider, who is 27 and originally from Hilo, loves being out, driving around the island, arranging the colorful bottles into rainbow patterns in the store coolers. The arrangement makes a difference when it comes to catching a customer’s eye, he said.
“If you’re not a person who likes to be cooped up all day, this is a beautiful job,” he said.
The van is small enough that Schneider doesn’t need a commercial driver’s license. And the money, $20 per hour, is pretty good. It’s enough to cover his half of the rent for a modest place in Waimanalo, which he shares with his girlfriend, who works as SKY’s main brewer.
“This job’s been a blessing to me,” he said.
Whether it’s enough to build a comfortable life here — to buy a house, for instance, and raise a family — is another question.
That wage might be more than enough in another state. But it just doesn’t go as far here. According to a 2017 report by the Aloha United Way, a family of four in Hawaii needs $72,336 annually merely to survive.
Employment in Hawaii’s construction sector is expected to be marked by slowing growth over the next decade, even as overall employment grows by a middling 3.5%, to 38,300 from 37,000. But there are pockets of opportunity in some well-paying occupations.
For example, the University of Hawaii Community Colleges’ career data portal projects the plumbing, heating and air-conditioning industry will add more than 700 jobs in total in the next decade, outpacing the generally slow growth in the construction sector overall.
While the demand for plumbers and pipe fitters will lead the way, demand for air-conditioning and refrigeration experts, mechanics and installers is expected to grow, too.
Dayna Kimura is a refugee from the tourist industry. She worked for Atlantis Adventures, the submarine company that runs undersea tours of the ocean off Waikiki. Her husband has a civilian information technology job with the military, she said. They were able to afford a condo in Aiea.
But a tourism job, though fun, didn’t seem like a long-term fit, even though she could occasionally use the bachelor’s degree in Japanese she has from UH Manoa.
The job paid only $13 an hour, and it didn’t seem like a lifelong career.
Kimura’s parents both worked in tourism and she had seen how their work hours varied depending on the seasonal ebbs and flows of visitors. She had already seen the same thing working for Atlantis. “There were always ups and downs, in shifts and hours,” she said.
So at age 30, Kimura is back in school at Honolulu Community College, training for a new career installing and repairing air-conditioning and refrigeration systems.
Kimura recently showed off her homemade refrigerator at the college’s lab, where her professor, Steven Chow, puts her and her classmates through hands-on tasks designed to train them for the rigors of the real world.
Kimura’s refrigerator looks like a cardboard box covered with aluminum foil, outfitted with a network of hoses, pipes and electrical devices. Kimura is shy, almost diffident, and modest about the achievement of creating a refrigerator out of a paper box. And she’s matter of fact about how cooling a box translates into cooling a building.
The principals, she said, are the same.
“A refrigerator is more of a controlled space,” she said. “The a/c is just to cool a larger area.”
It’s a job that requires multiple skills: in electrical work, soldering, working with refrigeration gases, even basic rigging and construction to move and install heavy equipment, said Chris Maria.
Like Kimura, he switched careers to enroll in the community college program.
Maria previously had a managerial administration job at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Although it was a good job, he wasn’t very happy. He learned about opportunities in air-conditioning repair and decided to make the jump.
After finishing the program at Honolulu Community College, he landed a job starting at $21 an hour, with opportunities for more, doing air-conditioning work for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command at Pearl Harbor. The money’s good, Maria said, but the job satisfaction, knowing that he fixed something, is even better.
He recalls when he was working at the airport and the repairman would come.
“When the AC’s down, everybody’s unhappy,” he said. “But this guy would come in and solve everybody’s problem.”
Health care industry jobs are expected to grow significantly in the next decade, to approximately 85,500 in 2029 from about 73,800 in 2019.
The home health care business is projected to be the fastest growing industry within the broad healthcare sector over the next decade. The number of jobs is expected to grow by nearly 50% to about 7,750 from 5,200.
However, the bulk of these new jobs will be for home health aides, a relatively low-skill occupation that on average pays just more than $26,000 annually.
In a state where the unemployment rate is nearly non-existent, it’s not uncommon for employers to have trouble finding good workers. But Beth Hoban’s challenges might be more significant than most – with troubling implications for the future of health care in Hawaii.
As president and chief executive of the home health care firm PrimeCare Services Hawaii, Hoban can’t find enough workers for key positions that will be needed to take care of Hawaii’s aging population.
The growth of the home health care industry has tracked trends in the insurance business. Twenty years ago, a typical patient recovering from surgery might spend five to seven days in the hospital, Hoban said. Now, patients often need to be out within 24 or 48 hours, she said.
The problem is the patients often aren’t ready to take care of themselves. That’s where companies like Hoban’s step in. They help patients who need skilled service while the patients recover at home.
This means increasing demand for all kinds of health care professionals needed to take care of people at home. One of the hottest occupations is projected to be home health aides.
The jobs don’t need significant formal training, but they also don’t pay well. And the work can be challenging, Hoban said. Like a hospital worker, an aide might call on multiple patients a day, but instead of being in one hospital, the patients can be spread out all over the island, she said.
“Imagine taking care of a patient in Waipahu, then driving to Waianae and Aiea – all in the same day,” she said. “You have to like to drive.”
As for compensation, the industry average is about $15 to $18 per hour, Hoban said. Still, she said home health aides get flexible schedules and autonomy.
Concerning money, Hoban said, “They can earn more working in a hotel.”
But the trend to home health care also means more opportunities for higher-paid workers like registered nurses, who serve as case coordinators for the teams that might include an aide, physical therapist and occupational therapist.
The registered nurses are also the eyes and ears of the doctor ultimately overseeing the patient’s care, Hoban said.
The challenge is finding nurses with the experience to deal with a variety of patients without the support and security that goes with being in a hospital. Hoban has started working with the University of Hawaii’s nursing school to train interns to work as home health aide nurses. But it’s not always easy to recruit people who have a vision of working in a hospital.
“I think it’s mostly fear,” she said, explaining why it can be hard to land new trainees. “They don’t know what to expect.”
The good news is that the home health care business will need a range of workers, including ones in higher-paid occupations. Registered nurses, for instance, are expected to be in high demand in home health care and across the health care sector.
Among those who made the jump to the home health care business is Cindy Kawasaki, a registered nurse who also works for PrimeCare Services. She spent 24 years at Queen’s, working the bulk of her career as an oncology nurse.
By all accounts, nursing is a tough job, whether it’s in a home or hospital. One issue is nurses’ schedules, said Daniel Ross, president of the Hawaii Nurses Association, which represents some 4,000 union nurses and health care workers in the state. Shifts of 12 hours are common, and schedules can vary.
Although experienced nurses can earn six figures annually, the varying schedules and long hours can be tough for families. Kawasaki said she was lucky to have support from her parents and in-laws when her kids were young.
Certain fields can be stressful. “When you talk about life and death, this really is life and death,” Kawasaki said of being an oncology nurse.
What’s good about being a home health nurse is that they can set their own schedules, Kawasaki said. And they can do some of the required paperwork after hours at home instead of having to do it at the hospital. If a nurse’s kid has a doctor’s appointment, it’s much easier to deal with as a home health nurse, she said.
A typical shift, including time spent driving, might be 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., she said.
There are downsides. The nurse must work in the patient’s home, which often means deferring to the families’ preferences and not visiting too early in the morning or during dinner time. Some of the work involves training family members on how to do basic procedures, like caring for wounds. The pay also can lag that of a hospital nurse, Kawasaki said.
But the trade-off is more autonomy.
“The flexibility is wide open,” she said.
As a remote island chain driven by tourism and no options for interstate trains or roads, Hawaii depends on a thriving air transportation industry far more than most places.
So while projections call for only slight growth overall in the state’s approximately 30,000-person transportation workforce, air transportation and airport operations segments are expected to add hundreds of new jobs.
The number of scheduled air transportation jobs, for instance, is projected to grow by more than 430 jobs over the next decade, increasing to some 8,700 positions in Hawaii.
The biggest share of those new jobs is expected to go to flight attendants. Projections call for a net gain of almost 200 new flight attendants over the next decade, from about 1,300 to a little more than 1,500.
Few occupations are more vital to Hawaii’s economy than flight attendants. Scheduled passenger flights serve almost all of Hawaii’s 10 million annual visitors, as well as residents traveling to and from the remote island chain.
While the job offers obvious opportunities for travel, it’s not all glamour. The work can be physically demanding, with luggage and overhead bins to manage, and food carts and at times unpredictable passengers to deal with. The hours can be long and often not compensated.
And in high-cost Hawaii, the wages paid by the islands’ main carrier, Hawaiian Airlines, lag those of competitors.
The Association of Flight Attendants is pushing for change. In November, more than 99% of the airline’s flight attendants voted to authorize a strike to spur management toward a new agreement. The current contract hasn’t been updated since 2012.
Wages are a major issue. The top of the scale for Hawaiian attendants is $55 an hour, with pay starting at $24.50, said Jeff Fuke, a member of the Hawaiian flight attendants’ negotiating committee.
That compares to an industry scale that tops out at $71.50, Fuke said. And it takes longer to reach the top of the scale at Hawaiian than it does at some other airlines, Fuke added.
Fuke is doing well, but he doesn’t have the challenges others in Hawaii face, he said. He’s single, with no kids, which makes it easier to accommodate a flight attendant’s schedule. And he’s able to live in a condominium that his parents own in Salt Lake.
While the starting pay of almost $25 an hour might seem decent, even for high-cost Hawaii, part of the problem is that flight attendants aren’t compensated like other workers.
At Hawaiian, for instance, they’re expected to work at least 75 hours per month. But the clock starts ticking only when the plane pulls away from the gate. Not counted is all the time helping passengers get on and off the plane, loading luggage, waiting at the gate and commuting to another city, if that’s necessary.
“We know how junk it is being delayed at the gate,” he said.
All of that unpaid time adds up. For inter-island flight attendants, the total time spent on duty is more like 125 hours per month, Fuke said. There’s even more unpaid time for longer hauls, he said, including nights spent away from home.
“You’re not earning money, and you’re there because of work,” he said. “You’re not doing housework, you’re not doing laundry, you can’t take your kids to the soccer game.”
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