Innovation in College & Career Preparation

Helping the Aloha State Retool Its Workforce and Economy

By Anna Gatlin, Senior Director, State Engagement and Relations, USA Funds

Anna Gatlin, USA FundsHawaii is a state with breathtaking natural wonders, a tropical climate that’s especially attractive during these winter months, and a distinctive culture and history. But Hawaii faces two keen economic challenges.

The job opportunities in the traditional engines of the Hawaii economy — tourism, agriculture and the military — are changing, so diversification of the economy to include an “innovation sector” has been a goal of the state.

At the same time, too few residents of the state have the postsecondary credentials — degrees or certificates — to meet the emerging needs of the state’s workforce. This mismatch of skills and workforce needs is especially acute in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields. According to one source, Hawaii is projected to need 16,000 more workers with STEM skills each year by 2017, but the state ranks 47th among states in the number of STEM-related degrees awarded per 100,000 residents.

As a result, many higher-paying jobs requiring education beyond high school are filled by people coming from the mainland. At the same time, many Hawaii residents can’t find living-wage employment in the local job market, given Hawaii’s higher-than-average cost of living, and they are forced to move to the mainland.

Hawaii has unique assets to address these economic challenges. Its statewide public higher education system encompasses 10 campuses, ranging from community colleges to research universities. Hawaii has a statewide K-12 education system. The state also has an active P-20 Partnership that is working to strengthen the education pipeline from early childhood through higher education. And business and government leaders are fully engaged in addressing these economic and workforce challenges.

The issues facing Hawaii’s economy and workforce are exactly those that USA Funds® seeks to address through our focus on Completion With a Purpose℠. We support better alignment between the needs of employers and the skills that their potential employees develop through their participation in postsecondary education and training programs. Hawaii also features strong collaboration among its government, business and education sectors, and the willingness to tackle innovative new approaches to workforce development — key ingredients to make Completion With a Purpose work in the state.

Helping the Aloha State Retool Its Workforce and Economy
Hawaii Gov. David Ige presents to USA Funds’ Carol D’Amico a proclamation recognizing USA Funds’ support of a $6.8 million workforce development project.

For these reasons, USA Funds last week announced a $6.8 million charitable investment in the state to help retool its economy and workforce. In partnership with the University of Hawaii  system and Project Lead The Way, the leading provider of STEM curricula to K-12 education, we’re supporting the initial phase of a potential five-year-long project that includes the following components:

  • Promote collaboration of government, business and the education sectors to better understand Hawaii’s current and projected workforce needs, particularly in STEM fields.
  • Develop education and training programs that equip Hawaii students with the skills needed to fill those projected workforce needs. These programs will range from short-term, just-in-time training to long-term education pathways that begin in elementary and middle school, continue through college, and lead to graduate readiness for high-paying jobs in STEM occupations.
  • Build a data system that tracks the effectiveness of these new education pathways, so students, educators and policymakers can see the best courses toward high-quality, in-demand careers in their home state.

Investing in the transformation of a state’s economy is an exciting opportunity. We look forward to reporting on the progress of this initiative in the coming months.

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