Where have all the workers gone? Hawaii’s chief economist explains

“Now hiring” signs are now a common sight around Oahu and Maui.
“Now hiring” signs are now a common sight around Oahu and Maui.
Published: May. 23, 2023 at 7:08 PM HST|Updated: May. 24, 2023 at 8:52 AM HST
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KAHULUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Jan Martin has worked at Island Grocery Depot in Kahului for 13 years.

Her boss says it has become harder to find loyal, hardworking employees like her nowadays.

“This is the worst we’ve seen it as far as you know, the worker shortage,” said Nelson Okumura, President of Valley Isle Produce.

Valley Isle Produce, or VIP, has been around for 72 years.

Okumura says he’s currently down 30 employees.

He’s not alone.

“We do hear businesses, they complain. They have hard time looking for people,” said Dr. Eugene Tian, Hawaii’s Chief Economist.

Tian says the worker shortage in Hawaii is improving, but it’s still not back to pre-pandemic levels.

He says, on average, in 2019, before the pandemic, there were a total of about 7,500 job openings in Hawaii. That number skyrocketed to 35,000 in December of 2021. The latest data from February of this year shows 14,000.

“We are still recovering. That’s the key,” Tian said.

Tian and other experts estimate a full recovery will not happen until 2025.

In addition, he says Hawaii’s population is dwindling.

“There are people moving out of state,” he said. “We lost population in the last few years, and this is especially true for Honolulu and Maui.”

Lastly, Tian says there is a mismatch. He says job seekers are out there, but their priorities have changed.

“Going through the pandemic, people’s habits, or maybe their demand, is different because they care more about health, about transportation, and family values. So, their standard has changed.”

The change has forced many employers like Okumura to get creative. He now attends job fairs and is also offering a signing bonus and other incentives.

He hopes it is enough to entice even more loyal, hardworking employees.

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