Hawaii is hardly known for its science and technology sectors, but business and educational leaders are trying to change that with a program meant to keep local talent at home by getting students thinking early about how to prepare for jobs in those industries.

The idea is to go deeper than standard workforce training that matches college and technical school classes to job descriptions for in-demand fields. That means working closely with industry to understand the range of skills workers will need.

“I think some of it is just opening people’s eyes that these opportunities exist,” said Keala Peters, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii’s “Sector Partnerships,” as the program is known.

Brennon Morioka, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Hawaii Manoa, is helping to lead an initiative to show pathways for students seeking careers in fields using science, technology, engineering and math skills. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2021

A case in point is what the Chamber of Commerce calls the Engineering K-Career Pathway. Since starting in February, Peters said, the initiative has signed up more than 70 companies that can provide insights for educators and be available to talk to young students.

“This is pretty unprecedented where we have an industry-wide effort to build a talent pipeline,” she said.

One of the project’s biggest champions is Brennon Morioka, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Hawaii Manoa. Unlike some academics, in addition to a doctorate in engineering, Morioka has real-world experience: as general manager for electrification of transportation at Hawaiian Electric, deputy executive director for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and director the state Department of Transportation.

There are generally more engineering jobs — as many as 600 — than graduates to fill them, he said. About 300 students graduate from the engineering college per year, leaving a significant gap that is made worse because many graduates leave the state.

While about 80% of civil engineering graduates stay to work in Hawaii’s vibrant construction sector, he said that only 60% of mechanical engineers stay and the percentage is even smaller when it comes to electrical engineers: just 40% to 50%.

The college has plenty of career programs, Morioka said. But the Chamber’s program provides a more in-depth understanding of what firms need and helps students see the spectrum of STEM jobs available. For instance, construction firms are now using artificial intelligence for things like project management and to assemble bids, he said.

“I would have never thought that construction would be looking at machine learning,” he said.

Linda Kawamura, human resources manager for Oceanit, said it’s important for kids, especially girls, to start thinking of STEM careers when they are young. “By the time they reach high school, it’s too late,” she said. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat2021

That illustrates one of Peters’ points: “80% of jobs that will exist five years from now don’t exist today,” she said, adding that makes STEM skills vitally important.

And that’s why the K-Career Pathway program starts with K, as in kindergarten, said Linda Kawamura, human resources manager for Oceanit.

The goal is to get students, especially girls, thinking about careers in engineering from the time they are very young, Kawamura said.

“From a very young age, women are taught they are better at more of the nurturing, the soft skills, and not the hard skills,” she said. “By the time they reach high school, it’s too late.”

Kawamura jokes that part of her motivation is selfish: Oceanit has 140 employees engaged in a variety of high-tech projects and constantly needs new workers with strong STEM skills. The company typically has 10 positions open at a given time, including eight engineering jobs. Many young people leave the state unaware that such jobs exist here, she said.

The Chamber is starting with two fields that have a gap between available jobs and skilled workers: engineering and health care, Peters said. But it soon will add ship repair and information technology.

Ultimately, it’s about informing young people that Hawaii’s economy has plenty of high-tech jobs.

“A lot of it is perception,” Oceanit’s Kawamura said. “Or misperception.”

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