Editor’s note: Hawaii is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, with unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression. Civil Beat’s series, “Making It. Or Not,” tells the stories of people in Hawaii who are struggling — and finding creative ways to make ends meet — in the pandemic economy. Email makingit@civilbeat.org to share your story.

Vimal Singh of Kauai had two jobs before the COVID-19 pandemic.

By day, the 44-year-old was a program specialist for a nonprofit group that aims to bolster the socioeconomic standing of Native Hawaiians.

The work, he said, was fulfilling. But the real money maker was his night job working as a portrait photographer at a tourist luau.

When the coronavirus upended the local economy, Singh lost his lucrative gig at the luau and found he couldn’t make ends meet with only his income from the nonprofit. So he left that job and tried to find a new way forward, eventually landing a spot in a program for workers displaced by the pandemic-ravaged economy.

Kauai resident Vimal Singh, who said he previously earned about 60% of his income working as a photographer at a tourist luau, said he feels like he needs to pivot away from the tourism industry and find a new career that isn’t so threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Courtesy: Vimal Singh

On Kauai, a new career transition program funded by $300,000 in federal coronavirus relief money is matching newly unemployed or underemployed workers with temporary gigs that provide hands-on training in conservation and agriculture.

An initiative of the nonprofit Malama Kauai, the Aloha Aina Workforce Program pays participants an hourly wage of $20 for full or part-time work at farms, food banks and conservation groups — no experience necessary. More than 300 people applied for 24 positions in the 12-week training program.

“Kauai’s asset is the land — agriculture, food systems, conservation,” said Project Coordinator Anni Caporuscio, who managed a small coffee shop before the pandemic put her on unemployment. “That’s what we excel at and that’s what we have to use to support our people.”

The project targets workers struggling with job loss or reduced income at a time when many industries have lost their customer base or have been rendered unsafe by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as tourism and the performing arts.

Beyond an hourly wage and a foray into a new field, participants receive health care benefits and a shot at getting hired by their host site when the program funding runs out in early December. At that time, the hope is that the host sites will be in a position to offer their trainees permanent employment.

The program is similar to a statewide initiative launched earlier this month that will use $10 million in CARES Act money to pay up to 650 displaced workers $13 to $15 per hour to train for new careers in conservation, renewable energy, creative arts and aerospace.

“I’m looking at this experience as the foundation for a total career change.” — Vimal Singh

Since August, Singh’s been working at the land and cultural stewardship nonprofit Kumano I Ke Ala, where he’s learning how to be a grants writer.

He’s hopeful that the program will provide him with the skills he needs to launch a new career in a field that’s relatively protected from the economic and social chaos unleashed by the pandemic — at least compared to his former tourism gig.

“I’ve always felt really strong about my writing skills and I’ve always dreamed about being able to do it professionally, so the idea of being a grants writer, it checks a lot of boxes for me as a career,” Singh said. “I’m looking at this experience as the foundation for a total career change. And it feels like an incubator. It’s a really supportive way to learn a new skill set.”

Other gigs offered through the workplace training program include a grants writer at the Hawaii Food Bank Kauai, an apprenticeship in water quality monitoring at the Moloaa Irrigation Cooperative and an education specialist at Reef Guardians Hawaii.

There are also training opportunities at Malama Huleia, Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, Kauai Kunana Dairy, Kalalea View Farm, Rainbow Roots Farm and Common Ground Kauai.

“There are a lot of people that were tour guides that are now working in conservation, which I find fascinating,” Caporuscio said. 

“It’s hard to career transition when you have tourist money,” she added. “You might hate your job at the hotel but you don’t leave it because the money’s good. So it’s good for these workers to have this opportunity now.”

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