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The Preparation Gap

Many in Hawaii remain unprepared for the workplace, but education programs are making progress

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Angelique Shields
DETERMINATION: At 41, Angelique Shields enrolled at the Windward Community College Employment Center to obtain business skills she never received as a young student.


Sergio Goes

Every new hire for an entry-level job at City Mill must pass an elementary math exam. The exam has questions such as how the fraction 1/4 is written as a decimal and how many quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies should be given in change for a particular transaction.

Applicants are given 25 questions in all; they can miss seven and still pass.

Nearly half fail on their first try.

The test isn’t designed to be tricky, says Steven Ai, company president and CEO. “Our test is everyday things—real life type of things. About four years ago, we allowed them to use calculators. They still do struggle even with calculators.”

With all the talk of creating more high-paying positions in Hawaii, a more immediate matter sometimes fades into the background: Many high school graduates are woefully underprepared to enter the work force in the first place. “You can start talking about raising the skill sets of people to do high-demand industries, [but] you can’t do that unless they have the basic skills coming out of high school,” says James Hardway, assistant to the director at the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. “There’s a gap.”

However, it’s tough to say how big the gap is. Stories from businesses like City Mill’s abound, but clouding the issue is the state’s very low unemployment rate, which has been at or under 3 percent for about three years now. That means people are getting work—it simply may not be the quality of work they’d choose. And in many instances, employers are forced to do remedial training just to get those workers up to speed.

Another challenge in quantifying the gap is that the federal money coming into the state for work force development is fragmented, with small amounts going to many different programs. “I think there’s a lot of data gathering,” Hardway says. “We know a lot of players and what they’re getting.” According to Hardway, the next step is for all the parties to sit down and develop a comprehensive and coordinated plan for how the money is spent.

That’s a critical step because, over time, not having enough qualified workers to fill available jobs can constrict a state’s economic growth. And in Hawaii, businesses can’t simply reach across state lines to find more employees.

Only Getting Tougher

One of the most prominent new programs aimed at dealing with the issue is called STEM, which puts a spotlight on science, technology, engineering and math curricula. It injects context into learning—teaching students that math is more than a bunch of numbers on a chalk board. Last summer, for instance, middle school students could participate in a science and technology program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Workshops helped students create sound, light and motion through technology, while learning electrical engineering skills.

“Everything suggests that for a lot of students, that’s the best way for them to be learning,” says John Morton, the University of Hawaii’s vice president for community colleges.

Historically, there were two student populations—one that was going to college and another that was focused primarily on graduating from high school. “There were good-paying jobs that perhaps you didn’t need all these skills,” Morton says. “Looking out over the next decade or so, the jobs in general are going to require not less but more … skills. As the economy has changed … it’s not enough to just graduate from high school. You’ve got to know this stuff.”

Many repetitive, low-skill jobs are being replaced by machines and the pipeline isn’t flowing fast enough for jobs in high-demand industries like biotechnology. Growth in the economy and the aging of Hawaii’s work force in recent years have resulted in about 29,000 jobs to be filled annually, according to the University of Hawaii. Over the next decade, more than half of the jobs to be filled are expected to require education and training beyond high school.

“The demographics just don’t play out,” Morton says. “Either you’ve got to import workers … or improve the skills of those already working.”

A trend that makes programs like STEM critical.

Mitch D’Olier, president of Kaneohe Ranch real-estate management company and its endowment trust, the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, calls the problem the “preparation gap.” D’Olier believes a multifaceted approach is needed breach that gap. If it were up to him, he’d toughen diploma standards, lengthen school days and offer pre-kindergarten programs for all children. Says D’Olier, “We need to throw the whole basket at this.”

The hitch? Money.

“The more of this stuff you get into, the more expensive it gets,” he acknowledges, adding, “but the upside, 15 to 20 years from now, greatly exceeds the expense. The question is, ‘Do we have the political will to do this?’ Shame on us, if we don’t.”

The expense of a less-educated work force extends beyond lower-paying jobs right now. It means fewer businesses with high-paying jobs may move here in the future, limiting local opportunities for those in Hawaii who do pursue higher education.

Tammi Chun, executive director of the Hawaii P-20 Initiative, is working with UH, the Department of Education and businesses on one of the solutions D’Olier mentioned: The option of a higher quality high school diploma. The P-20 Initiative, designed to address the challenges of the educational pipeline in Hawaii, is leading the state’s involvement in the American Diploma Project, a consortium of about 30 states that have or are in the process of creating a diploma with higher standards.

In Hawaii, the proposed diploma would be voluntary. The state Board of Education already offers a “recognition diploma.” But the American Diploma Project folks want to identify specifically what classes are needed to earn a recognition diploma. The proposed changes would include requiring expository writing, algebra, geometry and at least two laboratory science classes such as biology and physics.

National research indicates students who take the more rigorous courses are better prepared to succeed in college and/or the work force, Chun says. Possible incentives if the new diploma is approved could include college scholarships, priority for internships, apprenticeship waivers, job advancement, college placement test waivers and priority college registration. The board of education is expected to consider the proposed standards in March.

“It’s pretty exciting because it’s really helping students understand the connection between what they’re doing in high school … and getting a good paying job,” Chun says.

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