Mariah Haʻo had worked in the hospitality industry for eight years when she quit her job as food and beverage manager at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort to join the protests over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea in 2019.

Nine months later, when the coronavirus pandemic prompted protesters to disband their camps on the dormant volcano in March 2020, Haʻo found herself a changed woman with a renewed connection to the natural world.

Hawaii and the hospitality industry had dramatically changed, too.

Tables and chairs remain empty at the Hale Koa beachside hotel in Waikiki, HI, Thursday, October 22, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
With few tourists flying in, coronavirus-related lockdowns and travel restrictions forced many Hawaii hotels to sit empty for months. Tourism’s sudden decimation has underscored a need to diversify Hawaii’s economy. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

“When I came down from the Mauna, I expected that I could find a job immediately, that I could go back to the hotel industry,” said Haʻo, 28. “But it was the high peak of COVID and I was stuck. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed workers to pivot to new jobs and industries.

In Hawaii, the virus all but toppled the tourism industry that buoys the state economy, driving up unemployment and underscoring a need to grow a more diversified workforce.

To temper heightened joblessness, state lawmakers last year funneled approximately $8 million in grants from the federal CARES Act fund to match nearly 1,000 displaced workers with temporary gigs, health insurance and career training. 

Now Hawaii lawmakers are considering legislation that would create a permanent state jobs corps to address coronavirus-related unemployment and support a more diversified economy. The program would be open to residents seeking education and training opportunities in conservation, agriculture, technology and green energy.

The proposed legislation points to the success of last year’s short-term initiative as an example of what a permanent program could achieve.

It also positions the program as a means to develop the workforce required for the state to achieve its environmental goals, including targets to convert to 100% renewable electric energy by 2045, replace all cesspools by 2050 and establish a zero emissions clean economy by 2045.

“We waste so much money in government on things that economists will tell you are not a good bang for your buck,” said state Rep. Sean Quinlan, a sponsor of House Bill 1176. “But this is one of those programs where we do get a return on investment.”

“The economists will tell you that this is a good way to spend our money. So when we do find those things that have positive outcomes for the whole economy, I think it’s even more important that we fund them,” he added.

The project would be administered by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and funded with state general funds. But a dollar amount has not been proposed.

“The economists will tell you that this is a good way to spend our money.” — Hawaii Rep. Sean Quinlan

By most accounts, the state’s short-term workforce development program was a success last year.

Haʻo and other participants struggling with coronavirus-related unemployment, as well as recent high school and college graduates, gained paid, on-the-job training and mentoring for up to three months. They were placed with local companies and nonprofit groups in emerging industries, including conservation, renewable energy, agriculture, creative arts, aerospace, entrepreneurship and STEM fields. 

When the program ended in December, state officials hoped some of the participants would be offered permanent employment.

Workforce Program ‘Opened Up Doors’

This was largely the case. More than half of the participants said in an exit survey that they received a job offer from their host site or secured long-term employment elsewhere upon completing the workforce development program.

“People got job skills and confidence and the knowledge that there are a lot of opportunities to work outside of tourism,” said Mike McCartney, director of the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, which helped develop the program.

The program also helped bolster local businesses and nonprofits, which also had been struck by the pandemic’s economic toll.

Now, as travel restrictions loosen and COVID-19 vaccines become more accessible, the question is: Will workers who completed the workforce development program continue to pursue a new career path or will they return to the slowly reemerging hospitality and tourism sectors?

Upon acceptance into the program’s Kupu Aina Corps tract, Haʻo was matched with Pohaha I Ka Lani, a Native Hawaiian nonprofit organization based in Waipio Valley on the Big Island. She learned how to prevent invasive weeds from choking out native species, tend loi kalo and propagate plants. 

The experience also led to a change of heart. 

Mariah Ha’o portrait.
Mariah Haʻo, 28, said the state’s three-month workforce development program, funded with federal CARES Act dollars, helped her learn skills needed to shift away from a career in tourism toward a new path in the conservation sector. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Aloha has always been a part of my life, but now it feels like a responsibility,” Haʻo said. “There’s aloha, like, ‘Aloha, can I get you a Mai Tai?’ and there’s aloha, like, caring for the person that’s next to you even if you don’t know them and caring for the aina and caring for your community. I think it’s really important to my ancestors that I really, truly radiate aloha like that.”

Haʻo said she no longer envisions a future for herself in the hospitality industry, although Pohaha I Ka Lani was unable to extend her employment when the program ended and federal funding dried up.

Haʻo has not yet been able to land another job in the conservation field but builds on her skills by volunteering with nonprofit conservation groups on Oahu. Meanwhile, she’s working at a restaurant to tide over her finances during her job search. 

“I’m back working at a restaurant, but I know that it’s just a stepping stone for me to go back to working in land management,” she said.

Finding Funding

Workforce development programs are also springing up at the county level.

In February, the Hawaii County Council voted unanimously to create a green jobs corps modeled after the state’s short-term project. A funding source for the county’s future program has not been identified yet.

Kauai resident Vimal Singh, who said he previously earned about 60% of his income as a photographer at a tourist luau, said the pandemic made him want a new career less dependent on tourism dollars. Courtesy: Vimal Singh

On Kauai late last year, federal coronavirus relief money funded a $300,000 initiative of the nonprofit Malama Kauai to pay workers an hourly wage of $20 for full or part-time work at farms, food banks and conservation groups — no experience necessary.

More than 300 people applied for 24 positions in the 12-week training program.

Kauai resident Anni Caporuscio, who managed a small coffee shop before the pandemic put her on unemployment, became the project’s manager through her participation in the program and has since been hired full-time.

This has been the case for more than half of the two dozen program participants, Caporuscio said.

Program participant Vimal Singh, a former portrait photographer at a tourist luau, landed a full-time job as a grants writer at the land and cultural stewardship nonprofit Kumano I Ke Ala, which had been his temporary host site.

“It was always nice to have cash in my pocket with what I did at the luaus, but absolutely this is way more fulfilling work,” Singh said. “Grant writing is a good career path for someone like me with my level of education, and I’m getting more confident in it over time.”