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Hawaii's Own "Year 2000" Crisis

By Robert Kay and Richard Moody

You've all read about the Year 2000 Computer Crisis. In that scenario computers systems around the world will crash at the start of the millennium. This is because in 2000, computers will mistake "00" for "1900" unless new programming is developed.

In a different way our state faces an equally grim prospect by the turn of the century. However, this problem has nothing to do with software or hardware. It has, however, everything to do with a lack of people we'll need to run these complex technologies. Here's the background on Hawaii's very own year 2000 predicament:

According to recent studies from the U.S. Department of Labor and published by the Information Technology Training Association, by the millennium the U.S. economy will create a surplus of approximately 2,000,000 jobs in computer and networking related fields.

What does this surplus of 2,000,000 new jobs mean for Hawaii?

Our surveys indicate that of those 2,000,000 new jobs, there will be approximately 5000 positions created in Hawaii that will go unfilled in the local employment pool. Let me repeat. In just three years there will be a demand for 5000 skilled jobs in the Aloha State that will go begging.

Rather than secretarial or administrative staff, these workers will have to be highly qualified information technology specialists conversant in computer programming languages, networking applications, telecommunications systems, Internet and Intranet technologies and other highly technical skills. These are the kind of jobs which will be vital in keeping Hawaii business competitive into the 21st century. The problem is of course, we need to educate local people to fill these positions for the year 2000 and beyond.

I realize that for many businesses, simply surviving the current economic recession is enough to distract anybody from these kinds of "future" issues. However, the future is upon us and bringing our youth up to speed on technology is an extremely serious matter. Information technology which will determine how much we participate in the coming digital economy is absolutely critical to our state's economic survival. To date we've benefitted little from the nation's economic boom which has been fueled by the technology revolution.

More wealth has been created, largely from the growth of new technologies, in the last decade than many of us have seen in a lifetime. I don't need to tell you that Hawaii's economy has not participated in the rest of the nation's boom times. There is a real possibility that if we don't advance the education of our community we could easily slide into being nothing more than a "tourist plantation" like Fiji or Tahiti. To me this is unacceptable. We need to educate more information technology workers to preserve our standard of living and to ensure that our own workers have an opportunity for better paying jobs in the future.

Now let's change our focus from the year 2000 to right now.

Despite the current recessionary economic climate, right now there is a huge demand for skilled technology workers locally going unfilled. I strongly believe that given the proper education and mentoring, Hawaii youth and workers in job transition can improve their computer skills. There are plenty of very bright people in this state who have the initiative and desire to increase their employment opportunities. The needs of these people must be addressed.

If we are to compete in the global economy, Hawaii will have to rely upon a technically proficient workforce that currently does not exist. Now is the time to begin a program that will benefit our people and our community. So where do we start?

Better Education

Students at every level, from K-12 all the way to college need to have appropriate technology available in their schools and qualified teachers to supervise them. If offshore companies are going to invest in our state we've got to have the technology workforce that they can hire. Otherwise, qualified personnel will have to come from the mainland to do the jobs that we can't do. (This, by the way, is already happening.) To attack this problem I propose convening a committee of independent IT professionals from technology companies, state government, DOD personnel and other experts to assess the level of computer education in our school system from grade school all the way up to the University level. Based on the job projections for the next decade we will come up with suggestions for the Governor that will specifically address how to prepare Hawaii's workforce for future technology demands.

IT Pros Don't Get the Pay They Deserve

It's no secret that technology pros earn 20-30% less in Hawaii than what our mainland colleagues get. Thus a network professional with five years experience stands to earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year in Silicon Valley while the very same individual would probably be lucky to earn $40,000 to $50,000 in Honolulu. When you consider that the cost of living is more than 30% higher than on the mainland there's little economic incentive for these people to stick around. The upshot is that our brightest people go where they can get the wages they deserve. The problem is that employers in Hawaii can't afford to pay the going rate that IT pro's would get on the mainland. It's simply too expensive to do business here. If Hawaii is ever going to compete with other states we've got to be able to afford to pay our people the going rate. The state must recognize this issue and cut taxes (such as the general excise tax), red tape and the cost of doing business which would make our state a more business friendly and competitive environment.

The Bottom Line

I'm often asked how to build our pool of skilled labor. Do we rely solely on educators? Whose responsibility is it? Parents? Local business? The State? The Federal Government?

I think it is everyone's responsibility, and we need to recognize that it will only happen if programs are put in place to ensure that we create the people with the skills to fill this void. This means supplying the tools, education, and mentoring to ensure that Hawaii has a skilled labor force to move forward with new technology into the 21st century. This is a big task and we cannot wait for the other guy to do it.

We all have to get involved and lend a hand. If not, local jobs will go unfilled, companies and contractors will still be brought in from the mainland, and much of the revenue and jobs will leave the state. With agriculture and military spending on the decline in Hawaii we will continue remain a hostage to tourism--a very iffy proposition considering the current financial crises in Asia. Bottom line: If we don't squarely face the technology gap head-on, Hawaii will be left in the dust. Our only export will be our money leaving Hawaii in the hands of those not necessarily smarter--but better educated than we are.

The Honolulu Advertiser

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