A program designed to attract remote workers to Hawaii has offered an added benefit for public school students by giving them a first-hand glimpse into an industry or profession they may not have otherwise been exposed to due to COVID-19 restrictions that kept people home for most of the past year.

Movers & Shakas, which has brought dozens of digital nomads to work in the islands, asks members to give back to the community by volunteering in a service-oriented project, including mentoring students.

Charles Salas, a Washington, D.C.-based security engineering manager at Exelon Corp., who came to Hawaii as part of the initiative in mid-February, called it a “win-win” for his company after he was able to convert his mentorship of students at Waipahu High into the creation of paid virtual internships for two of them.

Lanai High and Elementary School sign.
While the pandemic largely closed school campuses last year, it also bred new remote mentorship opportunities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Salas, 46, who was born on Guam and is Chamorro, is passionate about broadening the science and technology industries to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Waipahu High’s student body is about two-thirds Filipino, and he’s heartened by the fact he was able to spark interest in his field.

“I know there will be that one student who says, ‘Energy is not for me’ and there will be that one student who says, ‘I definitely love this and I had no idea and someone spoke to me about it,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington.

In their internships, the just-graduated seniors are logging in to the company remotely from Hawaii and testing out tools and devices that monitor the power grid and enable them to practice coding.

This development has served as a silver lining in a pandemic era where students were largely forced to learn from home out of safety concerns, depriving them of in-person social interaction with teachers and fellow students for roughly an entire school year.

Taking advantage of new pandemic-era work habits, Movers & Shakas began recruiting remote workers with mainland-based employment to choose Hawaii as their work-from-home location by offering them free roundtrip airfare and other benefits. One of its goals was to entice Hawaii residents who had moved away to return to the islands by allowing them to do their jobs remotely.

“Our program in general is very focused on ‘brain gain,’ rather than ‘brain drain’,” said Nicole Lim, the director of Movers & Shakas, who is from Hawaii but has worked on the mainland and abroad. The program is currently recruiting applications for its second round of fellows starting in October.

In exchange for the opportunity, the fellows also were asked to use their skills and participate in a volunteer capacity.

The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii worked with the program to develop “Hanai-a-Classroom,” using the Hawaiian word meaning “to adopt,” for fellows interested in supporting local education, like Salas.

Charles Salas, Movers & Shakas, Exelon, Waipahu High
Charles Salas Courtesy: Charles Salas

Because of the pandemic, he had to meet with the Waipahu High School students virtually. He spoke to them about the energy field and relayed the importance of “soft skills” like how to communicate effectively as an engineer.

He also tried to make his job fun and relatable, like telling the students to calculate the level of energy consumption from an everyday object such as a lightbulb in their refrigerator.

Though he left Oahu in mid-March, he continued to connect the students with his colleagues once he returned to D.C. so they could hear from a variety of professionals about things like the smart grid or 3D virtual scanning or nuclear ultrasonic energy.

Salas wasn’t the only volunteer in “Hanai-a-Classroom.” Several other fellows in Movers & Shakas, representing Amazon, Booz Allen Hamilton, Grubhub and other companies also mentored students at Kapolei High and Campbell High.

Courtney Suma, a college readiness teacher at Kapolei High, praised the initiative, saying it helped the students “truly understand what is expected of them as they enter the workforce either immediately after high school and/or after post-secondary education.”

“Students were able to self-assess their current skills with what’s expected of them, but also receive guidance, support and assistance in how to fill the gaps that currently exist in their skill set,” she said in an email.

The Hawaii Chamber of Commerce has regularly worked with high schools to expand workforce opportunities for students. The “Hanai-a-Classroom” program allowed students to be exposed to even more companies outside the islands’ borders.

“We could connect with folks who don’t necessarily have ties to Hawaii so it bridges that gap,” said Lord Ryan Lizardo, program manager of work-based learning at the Chamber of Commerce.

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