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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 1, 2006

Have we reversed the brain drain?

 •  The burning questions of 2006

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Reversing the brain drain of our graduates can happen with more higher-paying jobs in fields such as healthcare and technology.

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Will 2006 be the year that Hawai'i stops losing its most talented college students and young workers to better-paying jobs on the Mainland, the so-called brain drain?

Hawai'i seems to be at the tipping point, said Alex McGehee, executive vice president of the private, nonprofit economic development organization Enterprise Honolulu. The only problem, McGehee says, is that he isn't sure "which way it's going to tip."

Hawai'i's humming economy which produced the nation's lowest unemployment rate for most of 2005 belies the continually eroding population of the Islands' best and brightest.

"Everybody's very happy about the state of Hawai'i's economy and the low unemployment and all of that," McGehee said. "But it's primarily fed by record levels of tourism and the construction industry. The construction industry is very subject to highs and lows. And tourism sector jobs simply don't pay."

By 2012, economic forecasters predict, O'ahu will see 51,000 newly created jobs. But only 18,000 of the new openings are expected to pay above the $45,000-per-year salary considered a living wage in Hawai'i.

"Even at that salary," McGehee said, "I don't know how many families can live on that."

Reversing the brain drain will only happen if there is more growth in high-paying jobs in healthcare, management, technology and engineering.

Even though the state's population is growing by about 1 percent a year, the net loss of people moving to the Mainland is about 2,600 annually. The growth comes from births and in-migration from foreign countries.

It really seems to come down to money the abundance of higher-paying jobs along with a lower cost of living keeps pulling young Island residents away.

"Undergraduate salaries (in Hawai'i) range from the high 20s to mid-30s," said Rick Varley, director of internships and career development for the University of Hawai'i's College of Business. "Unfortunately, even with an MBA, you're looking at starting at $45,000 to $50,000, which is still so much lower than what they can earn on the Mainland."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.