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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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Education is for Everybody

Just over a year ago, the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs released a study called “Hawaii Construction Workforce Action Plan,” which suggested Hawaii would need thousands more construction workers over the next decade to keep up with military construction and private development. “In the last 5 or 6 years, we’ve had the biggest boom probably since statehood,” said Kyle Chock, director of Pacific Resource Partnership, a coalition made up of contractors and the Hawaii Carpenter’s Union. “Contractors have had to turn away jobs. We just have had too much work and not enough people to do the work.”

The quality of kids coming into the industry was a “big problem,” Chock says. Many couldn’t read a tape measure or ruler and 40 percent of high school graduates failed their apprenticeship entrance exam.

A few years ago, several high schools started a Construction Academy pilot program with Honolulu Community College. Today, nearly 30 schools participate, preparing students statewide for the construction trade. “I think it’s a little early to put a grade out on it yet because it’s only been a couple of years,” Chock says. But several thousand students have been through the program so far, and anecdotally, it seems to be accomplishing its goal of helping prepare students for a career in construction.

Another problem in the construction industry has been the dropout rate from apprenticeship programs. The Hawaii Carpenters Union offers a three-day program for prospective apprentices. It allows them to go into the field and see what, exactly, they’d be doing. Education director Leonard Hoshijo says some people realize then that the work simply isn’t for them, saving the worker and union time and money.

The Building Industry Association’s work force development arm in 2005 started the Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program for a broad base of construction-related fields. So far, it’s trained more than 100 people and boasts a 75 percent placement rate of its graduates into union and nonunion jobs. Barbara Nishikawa, coordinator of the program, says the dropout rates and poor math skills have long been issues in the industry. Programs like these weed out the unqualified and uninterested, as well as giving a head start to those who are ready for such a career.

“Let’s go back to the foundation,” Nishikawa says. “Let’s go back to grassroots. We have to start from scratch and build.”

Time will tell if the flurry of programs aimed at correcting it will close Hawaii's preparation gap.

Windward Community College’s Employment Training Center (ETC) has a similar mission for a broader cross-section of Hawaii residents—providing short-term training opportunities to people of all ages, including adults who want or need to change careers. The center offers courses in several fields, including office skills and management, auto body repair, nurse’s aide and culinary arts. Often, counselors or agencies refer displaced workers to the program to retrain for new careers. Sometimes, people decide on their own to enroll, simply to make themselves more marketable in the workplace. Classes range from a week to 16 weeks and cost from $250 to $1,300.

“What I notice the students doing is jumping from training to training and building on their skills,” says Michael Moser, coordinator of ETC’s internships and work experience. They might start with introductory keyboarding, then move to 10-key, then PowerPoint and end with an office administration and technology course, Moser says.

Once they finish, the students go to Moser, who may coach them if needed on “soft skills,” such as the importance of dressing properly, showing up on time every day and looking colleagues in the eyes when speaking. Then, he’ll try to set them up with a work experience. Many of the internships don’t pay, but they give the student valuable experience in a new field and the employer extra help. Plus, if it’s a good fit, it could turn into a full-time job.

The work experience portion of the ETC has only been around since fall, but already more than a dozen students are completing various stages of the 160-hour program. “The employers just absolutely love it,” Moser says. “We don’t have enough students coming out of the programs to meet their requests.”

One of the first students to take advantage of the work experience program is Angelique Shields. The 41-year-old Honolulu woman formerly worked as a flight attendant and later as a waitress and bartender at a local hotel until she injured her lower back on the job. Unlike some students, she already had years of practice in dressing properly and speaking comfortably in front of others. But she lacked the technical skills to enter a new career.

The state workers’ compensation program paid for her to go back to school to train for something that would be easier on her back. Last summer, she began a battery of business-related courses that ended in November. “I enjoyed everything immensely,” she says. “The teachers were very helpful and hands on.”

She recently started an internship with the Department of Taxation, which is rotating her through different departments to determine what her strengths are. “The most important thing to me is nobody should ever just let something happen and think there’s nothing else,” she says. “When God shuts one door, he opens another.”

From recent high school graduates who can’t convert fractions to percentages to middle-age parents looking for a career change, sometimes, it’s simply a matter of training. Businesses, nonprofits and government agencies seem to understand the scope of the problem. Time will tell if the flurry of programs aimed at correcting it will close Hawaii’s preparation gap.

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