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Honolulu City Council looking to support COVID-impacted workers in effort to diversify economy

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A measure to create a Job Corps program between the city and the University of Hawaii to address unemployment created through the COVID-19 pandemic advanced today through a City Council committee.

The Job Corps program would be focused on training people for jobs to diversify Oahu’s economy, particularly green sectors such as local agriculture, conservation and forestry, renewable energy and climate adaptation.

The measure would urge the city to re-create opportunities such as Oahu’s Back to Work program, which ran between October and December 2020, to offer job training for residents whose employment was disrupted due to the pandemic. The measure will need to be heard by the full City Council to pass. The next full Council meeting is June 2.

Office of Economic Revitalization Director Amy Asselbaye said last year’s program was oversubscribed, especially by residents in the hospitality industry who were transferring over to work in areas such as sustainable farming, invasive species removal, trail upkeep and restoration of cultural, historic and recreational sites. “The goal in the end is to put people back to work and provide an opportunity for a job. In this case, that sometimes will keep people in their communities giving back to their communities,” she said.

Another successful program that the measure mentioned was the nonprofit youth-focused environmental group, Kupu’s Aiana Corps. The Aiana Corps program assisted over 360 displaced workers and recent school graduates to learn how to work in conservation, sustainability and agriculture projects.

“The work that they did was helping to remove invasive species,” Kupu CEO John Leong said. “I think they cleared over 24,000 feet of stream beds to help clear waterways. They did work in the agricultural sector and also restoring endangered species, working on trails.

“In total, the program had over $6.5 million in economic impact; it only cost $3 million. So there was over a two to one benefit-to-cost ratio.”

Asselbaye said her department would need to look into how the federal American Rescue Plan Act funding could help to fund these types of projects.

The measure would require Asselbaye’s department to identify public-private partnerships, outline the components of the Job Corps program and provide recommendations on funding mechanisms by Sept. 1.

The city is expecting about $386 million in ARPA funding for general expenses. It will receive $193 million this year and another $193 million next year. However, although the City Council submitted a written request to Mayor Rick Blangiardi of what it would like to see the money spent on, it is ultimately up to the mayor to decide.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of ARPA funding Honolulu was set to receive.
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