Reversing Hawaii’s Brain Drain

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Five steps local leaders are taking right now to persuade bright young kamaaina to stay home or come back

By LiAnne Yu

Tony Marzi is the kind of kamaaina that Hawaii’s business and community leaders hope will come home. The 32-year-old grew up on Hawaii Island, graduated in computer science from UH Hilo, founded a coworking space called Hawaii TechWorks, once ran for public office, and now has nearly a decade of professional experience in high tech.

Despite moving back twice to explore career opportunities, however, Marzi settled elsewhere. He recently accepted a job in Washington, D.C., managing a team of 80 within a global aerospace company, purchased a condo and will soon be joined by his girlfriend, a teacher from Honolulu.

“I know there are a lot of good folks who have made it work in Hawaii. But when your talented workforce must compromise between compensation and location, you’re going to lose a lot of good people. And ultimately it’s harmful to the business community,” he says.

Marzi’s journey reflects one of the state’s biggest challenges – brain drain – the departure of talented young adults for better opportunities elsewhere.

When your talented workforce must compromise between compensation and location, you’re going to lose a lot of good people. 

— Anthony Marzi

“We have two strong mitigating factors,” explains Joan Husted, former executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. “One is our pay in many fields isn’t competitive. And two, even if you can find a well-paying job, you can’t find a place to live. Where else in the country does a moderately priced condominium come in at 400k?”

Because the number of people moving away is greater than the number moving to the state, Hawaii has suffered a net loss of 30,000 residents since 2010. Thus, while young adults seek more lucrative opportunities elsewhere, ironically, critical jobs back home remain unfilled.

“We don’t graduate enough teachers to fill the vacancies we have. We have to hire people from the Mainland, but they only stay a few years, as the cost of living breaks them. In medicine, we’re short of doctors and nurses,” says Husted.

The community leaders, parents and young professionals interviewed for this piece all agreed there is no silver bullet or simple legislation that can fix the problem.

“Solving brain drain is like solving homelessness. It’s such a high-level issue, it’s difficult to say we’re going to do this, this and this and be able to fix it. There are so many factors. Even if you figure out two or three things, you’re not going to see returns on these things for years,” says state representative Jarrett Keohokalole, whose district runs from Kaneohe to Waiahole.

While the problem is complex and enormous, multiple sectors are tackling brain drain from different angles. “Every problem has a solution,” Husted says. “The question is: Do we have the will to put our heads together to keep our best and brightest in the state? Can we train them for the jobs that are available? And can we attract more business? But this is not just a business problem or a government problem. This is a community problem.”

 Build an innovation economy

Tarik Sultan, the managing partner at Sultan Ventures, believes the best way to reverse the brain drain is to support Hawaii’s innovation and entrepreneurial sectors. Photo: David Croxford

Tarik Sultan believes that solving brain drain isn’t just about providing more jobs. It’s about fundamentally rethinking the future of work.

“Within the next decade, 47 percent of all jobs are going to be automated. So what’s the future of jobs? It will be in problem solving. And what is a problem solver? It’s an entrepreneur. By 2020, 37 percent of all jobs will require problem solving as a skill,” says Sultan, the managing partner at Sultan Ventures.

“That’s what the innovation economy provides.”

Hawaii’s growing innovation ecosystem includes startup accelerators and incubators, venture capitalists, coding boot camps, university research labs focused on tropical agriculture and food security, farmers experimenting with new technologies, and coworking spaces where entrepreneurs exchange ideas.

We want to create an incentive for folks who had gone to the Mainland and pursued careers to come back to Hawaii. We’re saying to them, you can pursue your dreams, found a startup and get investment right here at home. 

— Tarik Sultan,
Managing partner, Sultan Ventures

While the innovation sector can’t yet compete with the number of jobs in tourism, the military and governments, there has been noticeable growth. Since 2012, when concerted efforts began to foster Hawaii as “Startup Paradise,” the number of startups that Hawaii’s accelerators have invested in has grown from 18 to nearly 150, says Sultan.

That growing startup ecosystem, Sultan believes, will draw talent back to Hawaii. “We want to create an incentive for folks who had gone to the Mainland and pursued careers to come back to Hawaii. We’re saying to them, you can pursue your dreams, found a startup and get investment right here at home,” he says.

The state is also playing an increasing role in supporting this new economy. For example, the High Technology Development Corp., a state agency, is helping develop a cybersecurity technology campus, an entrepreneur sandbox, a maker space and a digital media space. It is spearheading 80/80, a program with the goal of creating 80,000 new jobs with salaries over $80,000 in technology and innovation by 2030.

HTDC executive director and CEO Robbie Melton warns, however, that the innovation economy is at a critical growth stage now and needs continued support. “We need more training money and targeted scholarships for STEM education. While there’s money for startups, we need more investment for that middle range – those companies actually launching products. Those are the companies that will hire employees.”

 


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