HONOKAA >> Tucked away in a small asphalt lot on Honokaa High’s campus, about two dozen carpentry students toiled away at their sawhorses. Hard hats and safety goggles on, measuring tape and saws out.
"I’d rather be out here than in a classroom," said Kaila Torres, 17, as she eyed a piece of wood she needed to cut.
The group is earning dual high school and college credit as part of an intensive "construction academy," designed to give students a head start on their postsecondary education before they leave high school.
But while the students might graduate with a bit of an advantage, teachers and counselors acknowledge that these teens — and their peers across Hawaii island — still face considerable challenges: among them, a high unemployment rate, a lack of opportunities for young people and few options for work in their own backyards.
"The hardest part is to try and convince the students that they can have success," said Reuben Chip, the Hawaii Community College instructor who teaches the carpentry course. "They’re telling me their dad was laid off, there is no construction."
There are new initiatives underway aimed at better preparing Hawaii island’s young people for a competitive workforce, steering them to high-demand careers and bolstering options for a new generation. The fruits of these scattered efforts aren’t yet known, but many agree the work is sorely needed.
EVEN BEFORE THEY leave high school, Hawaii island youth must tackle a hard truth: Work is tough to find here, especially for those entering the job market.
And for many youth living on the state’s second most populous island, getting ahead probably means going away. It means leaving small, rural communities like this one for the population centers in Hilo or Kona, or leaving the island for Oahu or the mainland.
Those left behind often find themselves settling for whatever jobs they can find — or being unable to find work altogether.
U.S. Census Bureau estimates show the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds on Hawaii island was a staggering 21 percent in 2011, the latest data available. The statewide average for the age group was 13 percent.
"Yes, there are challenges. There is a brain drain. There is a lack of employment opportunities," said Randy Kurohara, Hawaii County deputy managing director.
But Kurohara and others see reason for hope.
Hawaii island, they say, supports a robust entrepreneurial spirit and is attractive to families and businesses because of its relative affordability. It is home to groundbreaking research in astronomy and is at the forefront of Hawaii’s sustainable-energy movement. There are new science and technology opportunities, especially coming out of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, which has the state’s only college of pharmacy.
And the island, long known as Hawaii’s breadbasket, stands to profit from the growing popularity of buying and eating local.
In short, said Kurohara, the jobs that will lure and keep young people on Hawaii island "may not currently exist." But, he said, they will.
"I do see Hawaii island as a huge player in the future of Hawaii," he said. "You don’t have to have everything in Honolulu."
GETTING THERE, though, is far from easy.
Alapaki Nahale-a, director of community programs at Kamehameha Schools and former director of the Hawaii Charter Schools Network, said the island has "all the bones" needed for job growth and new opportunities.
But there is work to do.
"The whole brain drain, keeping the best and the brightest, is really an issue," he said. "We have to have the whole range of jobs. There are folks who want to own businesses, and we have folks who just want to make ends meet."
Patti Cook, community liaison at Waimea Middle and a well-known community activist, said the ultimate goal is for Hawaii island kids, especially those living in rural areas, to have choices.
"We hope a lot of them would choose to come back or stay but not necessarily have to leave," she said. "Now it’s mostly they have to leave."
At Honokaa High, like many secondary schools on Hawaii island, administrators and teachers are trying to tackle the lack of opportunities for young people by improving student preparation. They want students to be aware of the possibilities on the island — and the limitations.
This academic year the school converted part of its library into a college and career hub for seniors. University pennants line the walls, scholarship announcements are tacked to bulletin boards and a full-time counselor helps students map out a plan for after graduation.
About two dozen seniors were in the center on a recent weekday, seated on plush sofas and at long study tables, with earphones on and eyes glued to laptop screens.
Several of the seniors said they can see their futures — in business administration, computer science, auto mechanics — and they aren’t in Honokaa.
"The life is slow here," said Mitchell Echavez, 17.
Echavez said he plans to study computer science at UH-Hilo. From there, he said, who knows?
Honokaa, a former sugar plantation town on the verdant Hamakua Coast, is like so many places on the island: rural, remote and essentially a bedroom community to Hilo or Kona.
Angella Brandt, student activities coordinator at Honokaa High, said it isn’t just kids here who face tough choices.
Their parents, too, find it hard to make ends meet. Nearly three-fourths of students at Honokaa High qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch, a key indicator of poverty. Honokaa’s sugar plantation closed in 1994, she said, but people are still trying to recover.
"That was their life," she said. "Even though it has been 20 years, they’re still struggling with that."
NOW, SHE SAID, most people who live in the town work at hotels in South Kohala, an hour’s drive away.
Hulali Covington, dean of students at Honokaa High, said she fears today’s Honokaa students will also end up in the visitor industry, even if that’s not where they want to be. She has seen it before.
"They all want to get out of here," she said, "but they just can’t make it. They come home, and they go to work at the hotels for 30 years. It’s sad for them."
At the construction academy’s open-air workshop at the high school, William Coito, 17, sawed a piece of wood to be used for a shed the class is building. Coito, a "student foreman," said the course gives him hands-on experience — and an excuse to be outside during school hours.
But whether it will help him find a job after graduation is still unknown, he said.
Jobs, especially in construction, are scarce. His father, a carpenter, was laid off three years ago. He is now a dishwasher at a hotel.
Coito said he’s more inclined to go into diesel mechanics. "There’s more jobs than carpentry," he said. After graduation, Coito said he plans to move to Hilo.
In addition to offering better preparation for high school students, one of the major efforts aimed at opening new doors to young people is getting them enrolled in postsecondary education.
The UH system has increased its outreach — and collaboration with high schools — in recent years to attract more students to its Hawaii island campuses.
And the central targets have been students who might not think they’re college material.
The campuses have also worked to offer more distance-learning options, through videoconferencing or online classes, in recognition of the island’s expansive geography and long commutes.
The push, along with the economic downturn, contributed to significant increases in enrollment at Hawaii island institutions. Enrollment at UH-Hilo is at about 4,150, up 21 percent — or by about 700 students — compared with 2005.
Hawaii Community College, meanwhile, enrolled 3,600 students at its campuses in Hilo and West Hawaii in 2012, up 51 percent — or by about 1,200 students — from 2005.
HCC reaches out to high school students by giving them a chance to take math and writing placement tests to see whether they need to brush up on any skills before they apply to college. The West Hawaii campus deployed its "mobile testing lab" 44 times to 13 locations in the 2011-12 academic year, giving 700 students a chance to take a placement test. Of those tested, 64 percent went on to apply to a UH campus.
Beth Sanders, interim director of the UH Center at West Hawaii, said offering the placement tests early is important because many incoming students — up to 90 percent — place into remedial courses for math and writing. By taking the test in high school, she said, students can figure out exactly what they need to study before taking the placement test again.
The West Hawaii campus, in Kealakekua, operates out of a strip mall. Students share the tiny campus with a medical clinic and a local watering hole. A long-awaited permanent campus, with a price tag for phase one of about $22 million, is finally moving forward with construction in Kona.
But until early 2015, when the new campus is set to open, West Hawaii is making the most of things.
ON A RECENT AFTERNOON at the campus, culinary students busily worked in a cramped kitchen on dishes for an upcoming event.
One of the students, 22-year-old Samuel Vernon, is also a full-time line cook at a hotel restaurant.
He said he went to work right after high school, then decided he needed to build on his skills if he wanted to advance.
The HCC program, he said, has "given me the opportunity to plan for the future."
But while postsecondary education might give students an edge, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good job.
Rachel Nazara, treasurer of the UH-Hilo student association, said many graduates have to leave the island to find a position that will pay the bills.
"Is it a brain drain? Yes," she said. "People have to leave. You have to decide what’s more important and leave."
Back at Honokaa High, college and career coordinator Nicole Ryan sat in the newly created senior center, offering warm greetings to students shuffling in.
Honokaa has about 120 seniors this year. The school’s graduation, at 86 percent, is above the state average.
But 45 percent of Honokaa’s class of 2011 enrolled in two- or four-year colleges, compared with 53 percent among public schools statewide.
Ryan said her biggest goal during this school year has been to ensure all Honokaa High seniors have an acceptance letter to some kind of postsecondary institution.
"Every single student has wanted to go," she said. "So we’re coming up with a plan."