During his State of the City speech on Tuesday, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi laid out an opportunity and challenge for Honolulu. The city government has more than 3,000 job openings, the mayor said. And that doesn’t count 80 new positions he’s planning to add to the Department of Planning and Permitting.

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Filling openings quickly requires revamping inefficient hiring processes, the mayor said. And getting more workers — Honolulu’s workforce would total approximately 12,000 if all the positions were filled — is critical, he said.

“The number of people to get the job done in many areas are simply not there,” he said.

Honolulu isn’t alone. Hawaii’s state executive agencies have about 2,000 vacancies, said Ryker Wada, director of the Department of Human Resources Development. That doesn’t count departments outside DHRD’s purview, including the University of Hawaii system and the 22,000-employee Department of Education, which is perennially short of teachers.

But policymakers are trying to change that. Flush with cash as Hawaii recovers from the worst days of the Covid-19 crisis, state officials are offering money for more hires, not just to fill current openings but to create even more jobs.

One bill under consideration would pay for nearly 50 additional workers for the Department of Human Services’ Child Welfare Services branch. Another bill would give the University of Hawaii system money for more nursing school faculty, which advocates say can mitigate the state’s nurse shortage.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks at podium located at the Mission Memorial Auditorium.
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi says the city has 3,000 job openings, including ones in key areas he needs to “get the job done.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

There’s no secret formula for hiring workers, economists say, even hard-to-fill positions like nursing faculty.

“If you’re willing to pay market rates, of course you can,” said Sumner LaCroix, an economics professor emeritus with the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Kailua-based economist Paul Brewbaker agreed.

“There are many ways to solve a workforce development problem,” he said. “But the reality is how much money can they provide?”

Hawaii’s high cost of living might discourage people from moving here for work, LaCroix acknowledged, but its beaches, climate and natural beauty attract others.

“There’s one thing you’ve got to remember,” he said. “This is a nice place to be.”

It’s Not Just About Money

While money might be most important, the reality of hiring in Hawaii is more complicated.

Even before the pandemic, when the unemployment rate was virtually nil, the state was losing population.

And the labor pool has gotten smaller during the Great Resignation. As of January, Hawaii’s civilian labor force totaled about 673,700, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data published by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. That was better than the pandemic’s darkest days, when Hawaii’s labor force dropped as low as 622,200 in October, 2020.

But it’s far from the spring of 2017, when the workforce peaked just under 700,000. A recent study by WalletHub found Hawaii has the nation’s fifth highest resignation rate over the past 12 months, with 3.41% of workers calling it quits.

Recruiting and retaining workers is enough of a challenge that the nonprofit Movers and Shakas, which started during the pandemic bringing cohorts of workers to Hawaii to work remotely temporarily, has created the Hawaii Talent Onboarding Program, or HITOP, to orient new employees and their partners to Hawaii culturally and socially. The program is meant for newcomers and returning kamaaina, says Nicole Lim, Movers and Shakas’ director. The goal is to mitigate the need to constantly hire new employees by helping existing professionals integrate into the community.

Government employers face added challenges. Wada noted state departments have to deal with government funding that can fluctuate, unions and collective bargaining agreements, and a merit-based, civil service system that all restrict flexibility.

For example, he said, there are generally four levels of office assistant positions: I-IV. While an agency might get funding for a preferred Office Assistant IV, the position might require skills and experience few applicants have. A private employer could hire a less skilled worker and pay less while the worker trains on the job, but government employers generally don’t have that option, Wada said.

“The system is disjointed,” he said.

Another challenge, he said, is that the state’s ponderous hiring process means good candidates often find other work before state hiring managers hook them.

In response, the department has created something it calls its Wikiwiki Hire system, which lets departments connect with candidates and start the hiring process quickly.

But Wada said the system takes buy-in from agencies which need to manage it. So far it’s limited to the Department of Human Services’ Child Welfare Services branch and engineering and surveyor jobs with the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation Highways Division.

Doctors and nurses treated a patent at Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital in 2020. With the state facing a shortage of people to train nurses, lawmakers are considering a bill to hire more clinical faculty. Courtesy: Travis Parker/2020

In some cases, it’s not just the hiring process, but also training that needs to speed up.

Max Otani, director of the state Department of Public Safety, said his office has struggled with a high attrition rate for correctional officers during the pandemic.

“The best thing I can tell you is that the hole in the bucket is faster than we can fill it,” Otani said in an interview in late December. “People are retiring at a high rate, and this pattern will occur for the next two to three years, I think.”

A DHRD survey showed the numbers of officers who are qualifying for retirement is peaking, he said, at the same time that work in state correctional facilities has become more dangerous than normal as Covid-19 spread among staff and inmates.

“Given the pressures of the pandemic, I don’t blame them if they choose to retire at this point,” Otani said.

To backfill positions left open by the departing corrections officers, the department must increase recruitment and run more training cycles for incoming officers. The department has been running day and evening classes for recruits to speed the process, according to Tommy Johnson, deputy director for corrections.

To keep up with the attrition, the department needs to hold four to six training sessions annually for about three years, he said. The normal pace is two or three classes, which is not enough, Johnson said.

Nursing School Faculty Stressed By Covid-19

Officials are taking a different approach to deal with a shortage of nursing instructors. Like other occupations, nursing faculty have been hit by early retirements and departures related to Covid, said Laura Reichhardt, director of the Hawaii State Center for Nursing, which is located at UH Manoa.

In addition, Covid has meant clinical nursing faculty overseeing students in hospitals can supervise cohorts of only four or six trainees; before Covid, they could oversee eight. The result is increased need for clinical instructors at a time when there’s a smaller potential pool. Plus there’s a need for full-time faculty, Reichhardt said.

The strategy isn’t to hire an army of full-time faculty at once, Reichhardt said. Instead, she said, the idea is to hire dozens of direly needed clinical instructors in part-time positions. A nurse could devote, for example, one day per week to teaching and be compensated by the state for that day while learning to teach. Some of those nurses, Reichhardt said, could ease into teaching full time.

“It’s hard for a nurse to transition to full faculty load,” she said.

A House bill now in the Senate originally sought $1.8 million to support 39 part-time clinical instructors; however, the amount of the appropriation has been left out of the latest draft. Reichhardt said the $1.8 million — or whatever lawmakers provide — isn’t the final answer but gives the university some time to regroup and “right-size the ship.”

“You can’t do that kind of complex planning when you’re circling the drain,” she said.

Honolulu Has Big Plans

For Blangiardi the plan is more ambitious and less specific. A former long-time television executive, Blangiardi has ample experience building a workforce in the private sector. The question is whether he can do the same while running a city.

Responding to an interview request, the mayor’s spokeswoman, Brandi Higa, sent an emailed statement that noted the challenges of working within a government hiring system involving civil service laws, merit principles, and collective bargaining requirements imposed on public employers under various laws.

“Thus, the challenge is to find innovative ways for HR to meet the evolving needs of the City while still maintaining compliance with these laws,” she wrote.

Many of the thousands of vacancies are in departments dealing with things like roads, building maintenance and waste management, as well as the Honolulu Police Department, Higa said.

The administration has identified ways to “help departments hire faster and increase our hiring rates,” she wrote. Increased tax revenue means Honolulu can fund internships to help fill key technical positions.

At the same time, she said, some departments, like the Department of Planning and Permitting, are more challenging.

They “require organization-wide evaluation and strategic changes to positions in order for them to meet current needs,” she said.

Civil Beat reporter Kevin Dayton contributed to this story.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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