Our state’s main economic engine is sputtering back to life, but have we learned anything from our near-death experience?
When 10,000 visitors touched down in Hawaii on Thursday, many people cheered. Today’s tourist count is a far cry from the 30,000 daily visitors we saw last year, but it was still good news.
Cut off from our normal oxygen supply, many businesses couldn’t hold their breath long enough. Most will fortunately emerge, aching but fighting to recover. We clearly can’t switch off 21% of Hawaii’s economy without massive repercussions. Tourism will always be important.
Still, during every downturn, Hawaii leaders realize that a diversified economy is better for everyone. Every downturn, we find consensus on the importance of the local economy, local businesses and jobs, and opportunities for our young people. Every downturn, speeches and studies point out myriad opportunities afforded by technology, from new business models to knowledge work to global telecommuting.
But downturns don’t hurt or last long enough to bring about real change. Will we similarly settle back into the status quo after COVID?
I’m actually hopeful we were able to plant some seeds this year that will help us thoughtfully lay out new pathways to a sustainable future.
The very nature of the pandemic and its lockdowns forced offices to convert to a distributed, work-from-home setup. Even businesses that were resistant to the concept realized that, with few hiccups, it was possible to maintain operations without everyone commuting and converging on a single location.
If anyone can work from anywhere, Hawaii residents can work for anyone. It’s an information age cliche that’s now a practical reality.
Also in the last two months, I’ve come across many employees from big tech companies that have similarly decided to make Hawaii their new home. Having them in our communities supports the local economy and expands our talent networks, broadening opportunities for kamaaina.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has done something that many local groups have been trying to do for a long time: bring Hawaii’s talent back home.
Whether it’s because the economic impact of COVID-19 forced former residents to return or because they rediscovered the importance of family, many local people have returned to the aina in 2020. The lucky ones brought their mainland jobs home with them.
These former residents may be eager to get back to the way things were, but I think more than a few will adjust their perspective on Hawaii living. Hawaii is no Silicon Valley or San Francisco, but it’s not the Hawaii of the last century, either.
Finally, Hawaii’s high school graduates chose to stay closer to home this year. With so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 at campuses on the mainland, the University of Hawaii at Manoa last week reported its largest first-time freshman class since 1981.
Even students graduating from Hawaii’s private schools shifted local, with 20% more choosing to study at UH compared with last year.
I strenuously disagree with the premise of the term “brain drain,” but opportunities are more plentiful beyond our shores. We’re a long way from having the variety of careers and strong salaries in Hawaii that our young people deserve.
But there are also many local opportunities that our graduates overlook. For the class of 2020, at least, the “default thinking” of leaving right away has been challenged. By no means is this a long-term shift, but the door has been opened to allow in some new thinking.
Unprecedented times bring unprecedented opportunities, if we can align our policies and resources to capitalize on them. While government has the biggest levers to pull, there’s a role for everyone in this effort.
The business community needs to get serious about building career pipelines for Hawaii’s young people, with or without a college degree. UH has a huge part to play, especially in fostering entrepreneurship and capitalizing on cutting-edge research. People and organizations with money to invest must deliberately invest in local enterprises.
We need to strongly favor local vendors for contracts. (Awarding COVID-19 tracking work to mainland firms certainly didn’t pan out.) And let’s put more local faces on stages and screens as examples of success. Keynote speakers do not have to be from the mainland.
We can’t turn on a dime and achieve a sustainable, balanced local economy tomorrow, but we can still take meaningful action to change course in that direction today.
Ryan Ozawa is communications director for local tech company Hawaii Information Service. Join his open tech chat room at HawaiiSlack.com.