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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 3, 2004

Hawai'i's workers struggle with low pay, low-level jobs

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

A 2.9 percent unemployment rate means nothing to Randy and Billie Lueder, two college-educated, full-time workers who are frustrated with Hawai'i's job market.

Randy and Billie Lueder are frustrated with Hawai'i's economy. Randy makes less now than he did as a college student, and Billie worked four part-time jobs during summer break as a school career couselor.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

The Lueders were among the 612,700 people who had jobs in August when Hawai'i posted the lowest unemployment rate in America for the fourth consecutive month.

But Billie, a full-time career counselor at Kaimuki and McKinley high schools, still had to work four part-time jobs during her summer break. At the same time her husband, Randy, was bringing home a smaller paycheck than the one he earned as a college student three years ago in the same field, security.

In the world of labor data, Billie is considered a "multiple job holder." Randy is "under-employed," meaning his salary and job don't match his qualifications and ambitions.

Billie and Randy represent the frustrated human faces masked by favorable, statewide employment numbers. For them, low unemployment statistics are meaningless if they can't earn enough to leave their rented, three-bedroom house in Kaimuki and buy their own home somewhere on O'ahu.

"We have to move beyond the illusion that unemployment statistics have become," said Alex McGehee, executive vice president of Enterprise Honolulu, an economic development agency.

"People need to stop counting the large number of jobs and start talking about the quality of the jobs. The reason we have the lowest unemployment rate in the nation is because we have a lot of people carrying bags to (hotel) rooms. ... They're not bad jobs, but if you can't buy a house and support a family without two or three jobs, that's a problem."

Interviews with job counselors, recruiters, economists and workers across the state also suggest several other shortcomings in Hawai'i's job market:

Pay and benefits remain relatively stagnant even as employers scramble to fill thousands of vacancies — a demand that's expected to continue at least through the holiday retail season. Employers looking for specialized skills in areas such as information technology still see a gap between their needs and a workforce largely based on tourism.

And communities on all islands continue to have lots of people cobbling together full- and part-time jobs to keep up with rising home costs.

Both the number and percentage of people with multiple jobs have dropped in the past few years, from 9.3 percent of the workforce in 2000 to 7.6 percent last year, according to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

But 7.6 percent still meant that 44,977 people had more than one job in 2003.

"A lot of them are state and county workers who also work in retail or as bartenders and waitresses," said Mia Ako, cooperative education coordinator at Kaua'i Community College. "You see them in their office jobs and then you might see them behind the counter at Borders."

Ako is trying to woo locally born expatriates home through summer internships with sub-contractors for the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility.

Out of roughly 80 interns over four years, however, only a handful have returned to full-time jobs.

Enterprise Honolulu officials are talking to Kamehameha, Iolani and Punahou schools and several public high schools, including Farrington and McKinley, to conduct a survey of 8,000 to 12,000 alumni.

They hope to get a picture of the ex-students' skills in industries such as life sciences, technology and film and digital by the end of the year, McGehee said, to perhaps one day expand those industries to complement tourism and the military.

The idea is to create new, high-paying professions that would reduce the number of people working multiple jobs, McGehee said.

"We're one of the leading states when it comes to multiple jobs," McGehee said. "I've seen reports where we're at the top and other studies where we're fifth or sixth. Whatever the case, it's a perennial problem and it will never change in an economy supported by military and tourism."

The growth of big box retailers won't help, said Lawrence Boyd, a labor economist at the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu.

"They represent a whole big sector that's undergoing structural change," Boyd said. "They tend to have entry-level positions with little advancement, despite what their commercials say. Even with 40 hours of work per week, a lot of people are still going to have to work two and three jobs."

Eugene Kaneshiro, a 54-year-old former operations, personnel and sales manager, has the opposite problem.

Like dozens of other baby boomer professionals, Kaneshiro was disappointed by his prospects at a recent job fair where a record number of recruiters were looking to hire mostly entry-level workers.

"There's plenty of openings if I want to start over at the bottom," Kaneshiro said. "But they're very picky when it comes to upper management. They say I'm overqualified or they can't match my (previous) salary."

The Lueders, who were both raised on O'ahu and were married in August, are tempted by higher-paying, more challenging jobs on the Mainland where they can buy a decent home — maybe even on only one salary.

Billie, a 28-year-old, Miss Hawai'i 2000, tries to line up jobs and careers for McKinley and Kaimuki high school students. She's studying for a master's degree in secondary education at Chaminade University while working a wide range of side jobs, such as dancing for a cruise line and teaching modeling and etiquette classes at a modeling agency.

"A lot of employers — a lot — are calling the schools looking for part-time help," Billie said. "They want clerks, stock people, cashiers, definitely entry-level. ... It's not much better the higher you go. Even people with masters degrees are fairly disappointed that to stay in Hawai'i you have to take a low-paying job."

Her husband, Randy, 31, works as a plainclothes loss prevention investigator for an upscale store at Ala Moana Center. He likes the challenge of investigating internal fraud but would rather design computer security systems, develop security plans and trouble-shoot companies' bigger security problems.

"After all these years, I'm basically still doing security guard work, just without a uniform," Randy said.

Randy got his criminal justice degree from George Mason University in Virginia in May 2001 and has five years of supervisory/management experience. Since he moved back to O'ahu in 2002, Randy has been unable to find a good-paying, management position.

Today, back home, Randy earns less than he did while going to school in Virginia. So he continues to send out resumes every day.

"I thought that if I got a degree, I should be able to get a decent job, make a pretty good salary and be challenged at work, doing something that motivated me," Randy said. "I never thought I'd be basically doing the same job. This is crazy."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8085.