After Covid, How Should Hawaii’s Economy Evolve? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Amy Asselbaye

Amy Asselbaye is executive director of the Office of Economic Revitalization at the City and County of Honolulu.

Sunshine Topping

Sunshine Topping is senior vice president for human resources at Hawaii Pacific Health.

Erika Lacro

Erika Lacro is vice president for community colleges at the University of Hawaii.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few would have imagined the demise of Hawaii’s plantation economy, and no one would have predicted the subsequent rise of tourism, which at the time was a luxury reserved for the very rich.

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And yet, this is exactly what happened.

World War II was a constant disruption for the plantations. Plantation workers, facing obsolescence due to mechanization and the promise of better jobs in other industries, turned away from the fields.

Advancements in aviation made travel to Hawaii faster, cheaper, and more comfortable than ever. Statehood brought Hawaii into the consciousness of more people on the continent who had higher incomes and a new benefit called “paid vacation.”

Government at all levels invested in new infrastructure, and Hawaii’s economy transformed into the only one we’ve known for the past five decades.

This transformation didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it transpired over about three decades. It also didn’t happen by decree.

In fact, it was the product of Hawaii’s people adapting to a confluence of factors including a worldwide crisis, an evolving workforce, new technologies, changes in consumer demand, shifts in public opinion, and unprecedented government policies.

Aloha Tower Marketplace located along the Honolulu Harbor.
Oahu’s near future could see more people settling into new jobs with better pay and possibilities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Now here we are in 2021. For over 22 months and counting, Covid-19 has been a constant disruption to our tourism-reliant economy. Worker attitudes are changing. Work itself is changing. Technology is changing every aspect of our lives.

Globalization and the internet are changing consumer demand in unpredictable ways, and public support for tourism reached an all-time low. The federal government is making an unprecedented investment in Covid recovery and infrastructure. So what should we do?

On The Cusp Of Transition

The tourism economy provided more than the plantations could. It lifted many people into the middle class, addressed some key social inequities, and brought about a modernization of Hawaii that has improved the quality of life for many people.

A tourism industry that cares for our place and provides people a living wage, benefits and training will continue to be an option. Yet, on the cusp of the next economic transition, the people, once again, want and deserve more.

They want better jobs that can sustain families in Hawaii’s high-cost environment and that provide more people with a healthy work-life balance so they can care for their families. They want to address inequities that still exist, and generate more opportunities to prevent wealth from leaving the islands.

They want an economy that is more innovative and entrepreneurial, is attuned to the rapidly changing landscapes of technological and global economic transformation and takes better care of our cultures, neighborhoods, and natural environment so that all will be in good shape when they are inherited by our children.

At this early stage of economic transition, the City and County of Honolulu’s Office of Economic Revitalization, the University of Hawaii Community Colleges, Hawaii Pacific Health, and our other partners are focused on good jobs.

Covid-19 has been a constant disruption to our tourism-reliant economy.

In our view, a “good job” is one that brings financial security, provides benefits that enhance quality of life, is conducive to a healthy family and community, is attuned to the changes in the world, and adds to the community and environment more than it subtracts.

The strategies for preserving, creating, and getting people into good jobs require a collective effort that mobilizes federal resources, industry expertise, and individual ingenuity.

Together we are offering a variety of resources to individuals and businesses devastated by the pandemic, providing training and educational opportunities, investing in emerging industries, and creating local markets for local enterprises.

Together, we can bend Oahu’s economy away from the 20th century and toward a more promising, regenerative, emerging economy. For the first time in recent history, we are making an intentional, tangible, significant step away from our over-reliance on tourism.

In the near future, we see more of Oahu’s people settling into new jobs with better pay and possibilities, sharing their experiences with family and friends, starting new enterprises, and creating new jobs.

Together, we can turn the page on our economic past and deliver on promises made to our children and generations to come.

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About the Authors

Amy Asselbaye

Amy Asselbaye is executive director of the Office of Economic Revitalization at the City and County of Honolulu.

Sunshine Topping

Sunshine Topping is senior vice president for human resources at Hawaii Pacific Health.

Erika Lacro

Erika Lacro is vice president for community colleges at the University of Hawaii.

Latest Comments (0)

The first "City" awareness of the need for economic promotion/jobs goes back to the early 1980s – and the "new" Economic Development Corporation of Honolulu. Then-Mayor Fasi visited high tech firms in Taiwan, Japan and other APAC countries to lobby for R & D offices and manufacturing plants in Hawaii – and hire local residents. (This is so innovative, and nearly 40 years ago!) EDCH launched a Jobs campaign with TV commercials for a better "business climate" (90% of business/tax/education-related issues in Hawaii are under the highly-centralized State) – there was a Democratic Party backlash (if things were so bad, who is accountable?), and the then-EDCH head left. During the 1980s comes the Japanese real estate investment tsunami, and that de-focuses Hawaii leadership from planning and investment in K-12/UH. Every time a recession hits (recall "Thumbs Up Hawaii!?" ), somebody remembers that Hawaii is in the top ten States for "Worst Business Climate" and drafts new bills – and when the economy improves, the bills are shelved. In a normal State there would be a post-COVID State economic plan. After two long crisis-filled years -- where is it? What else is new?

FHSGrad · 3 months ago

I'm not sure what the Office of Economic Revitalization at the City and County of Honolulu does, but this article is embarrassing. Completely devoid of any substance.

justsaying · 4 months ago

So what are the recommendations, solutions, or ideas? The article is like a rah, rah, motivational speech, but with no solid solutions. In my opinion you are going to have to rebuild, starting from the ground up. It starts with education and here in lies the big problem, the state DOE and the HSTA, which combine to bring you what you see in the nightly news. Infighting, no direction and below par results. Figure out how to drastically change that and provide a quality education for all keki and you have a starting point. Second part is a bit harder, that is convincing youth that education is the foundation to higher wages, jobs and betterment in society. You can't dream of getting into the longshoreman's union as the ultimate prize because like the NFL it happens for few. Local kids need to want to raise up beyond being construction workers in order for there to be enough momentum to say create a small tech sector here. Without education there will be little "good job" creation. It will remain a service industry economy, sprinkled with construction jobs and Federal DOD money.

wailani1961 · 4 months ago

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