I'm on the Big Island this month. I know, I should shut up about it already. I decided to check in on Maui after the big storm, but I found an even bigger story: jobs. If you like these business stories, show your (free!) support by subscribing, so the content comes straight to your inbox. Please share and advance the cause!
Maui was walloped by the big storm barreling through Hawaii last week. The airport lost power, schools were closed, and roads in much of the southern part of the island became impassable.
As one of the most beautiful places on Earth digs itself out of the mud, Maui County has discovered an even bigger mess it can’t seem to clear: no one’s interested in working.
The unemployment rate here is 7.6%, down from 8.1% in September, and way down from 33% in April 2020, when the state first closed the tourism industry because of Covid. However, the rate remains above average for the entire state of Hawaii (6.3%) and the U.S. (4.2%).
“Getting people back to work seems to be one of the hardest things we've ever tried to do,” says Nico Fisher, a marketing and social media consultant who owns Skywriting. She’s working with the county to promote jobs and services, and she’s frustrated. “People just don't want to work, or they don't want to go back to their low-paying jobs.”
Maui county — which includes the islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai — held a job fair Friday, and Nico says this one generated more interest than earlier fairs. Leftover money from Covid stimulus checks and extra unemployment benefits may finally be running low.
Hotels, restaurants and home healthcare companies put out “help wanted” signs at the fair. Even Starbucks joined in for the first time.
I first wrote about the Hawaiian economy in September, when Governor David Ige asked tourists to postpone visits for a second time as the Delta variant hit the state.
People began trickling back in before Thanksgiving, and across Hawaii this month, daily arrivals are up from 2020, though still down almost 20% from what they were pre-pandemic. That may actually relieve some of the pressure to fill jobs.
As frustrated as Nico is that jobs are going unfilled, she understands why some people may be holding out for better pay. “I’m telling job seekers that this is their time.” She’s blogged about how to write a better resume, and she’s encouraging prospective new hires to ask for higher wages as well as flexibility and benefits. “Childcare is one of the biggest problems that we have right now,” she says, “because we don’t have it.”
The tourism industry may be hesitant to oblige. Maui hotels — like all hotels here — took a bath during Covid. The Four Seasons resort was able to mitigate some of the losses when producers of HBO‘s “The White Lotus” paid to film there during the pandemic (such a great show).
Now these same resorts have the highest room rates in the state, averaging $480 per night, a whopping 42% higher than before the pandemic. “[Maui] also led in revenue per available room at $289 in October, up 12.2% for the same time in 2019,” reports MauiNews.com.
Maui is second only to Oahu in visitors. More than 1.8 million travelers visited the island during the first 10 months of this year, where they spent over $3 billion, according to the state. However, that $3 billion is down 26% from 2019, before Covid hit.
Nico says that while tourists are starting to spend more in Maui, it hasn’t yet trickled down to better pay or benefits. Still, she’s surprised at the pushback her work for the county has received from local job seekers. Many of them don’t seem to trust government programs offering a path back to work. “They think it’s fake,” she tells me. “I don’t get it, I don’t get it… they could get help finding a job if they wanted one.”
It sounds like a tropical version of what’s happening on the mainland.
The harder part may be finding an affordable place to live. Just like parts of the mainland, housing inventory is tight.
Meantime, Nico’s own marketing and social media consulting business has grown during Covid. “People had money and people had time” during the shutdown, she says. She helped locals start businesses, or rent out their cars during the rental car shortage, and she started working more with the county.
“I have two assistants now; I didn’t have any assistants before.”
As for the local economy as a whole, “I don’t know that we’re going to recover for probably a couple of years,” she says, “because we’re in a very strange space.”
Cover photo: Rob DeCamp Photography