Futurist: Lack of skilled workers a problem for Kaua‘i

WAILUA — Island and state business leaders are staring squarely at a pending shortage of workers, and better take steps now to deal with it.

That’s the message island business and community leaders heard from a noted futurist who spoke on Kaua‘i Tuesday.

Dealing with the problem includes growing local talent to take available jobs, recruiting workers from abroad, and retaining workers using a variety of incentives including housing, said Edward D. “Ed” Barlow, Jr.

The key to economic success is recruiting and retaining a diverse population of workers, both in terms of ethnic backgrounds and professional skills, said Barlow, whose company, Creating the Future, Inc., encourages futurist thinking and lays out steps to communities for survival in a competitive worldwide economy changing rapidly.

He said Kaua‘i leaders need to do four things to prepare for a secure future:

  • Create an awareness of what’s happening, where the island is heading, and a sense of urgency about the need to act now to position the island to effectively compete for workers and business success in an increasingly competitive, global marketplace;
  • Establish awareness that alignment between workforce development, economic development and community development is necessary for survival and prosperity;
  • Ensure access to a variety of workforce development and training programs that will encourage people to get training to fill high-demand professions like nursing and teaching, re-train displaced workers, and teach everyone that desiring upward mobility is not a bad thing;
  • Demand accountability from elected officials and other policy-makers, and advocate for government training programs that while spending taxpayer dollars also produce workers who get higher-paying jobs and therefore contribute more to the federal, state and county tax bases.

The island and state have a quality of life and location halfway between Asia and the Mainland that can be used to lure the best and brightest, he said.

But more needs to be done.

Barstow advocates a holistic, community-based approach to growing, recruiting and retaining talent, with education being a key especially with current shortages of nurses and teachers that will only become more chronic without quick steps now to address those shortages.

Reducing the time it takes to train new teachers and nurses, and reducing the time it takes to bring new products to market, are two strategies that successful communities of the future will employ, said Barlow.

But the average Kauaian doesn’t understand how workforce development impacts him or her, until they need to go to the hospital for emergency surgery and find the emergency room is only open half the day because of a shortage of nurses, he said.

That has happened at Mainland hospitals, and could be in danger of happening here if a sense of urgency about addressing the present and preparing for the future is not instilled in the local population, he said.

In recruiting to fill existing and anticipated vacancies, Barlow suggests going after young, single people who are about to matriculate from graduate schools, with degrees in biotechnology and similar disciplines, as just a part of a “holistic, integrated recruitment scheme.”

His picks for areas of future growth in Hawai‘i and on Kaua‘i, include biotech, captive insurance, and film and digital media, he told around 40 people at the Aloha Beach Resort Tuesday morning.

The crowd included business and government leaders, and educators including Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste and County Councilmembers JoAnn A. Yukimura and Jay Furfaro.

Barlow said preparing for the future means assessing what to keep from the past and present; what to modify; what to let go and create. While at the same time finding time to tap into the vast, Internet-based world of real-time information and futuristic thinking, .

The good news is that two-thirds of what you are today, you can keep. The startling news is that the other one-third has to change as the world around you is, or you’ll suffer consequences akin to being left behind as the bus speeds away to its destination, he cautioned.

Correspondingly, one-third of the change taking place in the world is of the “disruptive” variety, so those who can see that coming and take steps to prepare for that change will do well this century, he is convinced.

Economic development and workforce development go hand in hand, and education is important, said Barlow, who stressed that partnerships, even those involving people you see as business competitors, are vital to current and future survival.

It’s a cliché to say “no pain, no gain,” but there is both pain and gain in change, he added. “Change can be empowering,” and for Barlow the key to change is knowledge management.

Visioning with an eye on the future, and understanding what’s going on around you at present, are traits of effective leadership, he said.

The only way out is working harder and smarter. “There are no quick fixes,” but there are things Kaua‘i’s leaders must do to ensure a capable workforce for the island’s economy, he noted.

Tourism is a good industry for the state, but economic diversification is needed, he said. In the future, the rest of the world becomes a competitor or a marketing opportunity, probably both, said Barlow.

“I think your future” will be bright if the best of Hawai‘i’s culture and environment are maintained, and entrepreneurship is added to the mix, he said.

He advocates something very much like state parks for entrepreneurs, and special courses in the schools to identify and encourage potential entrepreneurs.

Failure to act now will likely see the island continue its downward spiral of per-capita incomes, a trend begun in 1997 that continues today, he said.

“To me, that’s not a preferred future.” The choices are either to change, or be prepared to suffer the consequences of continuing to sail the good ship status quo, he said.

“I think you have some great assets here. I think you have some issues and challenges,” too, he said.

“The islands have all the necessary assets, but you don’t collaborate,” he said, pointing out that in Hawai‘i there are no fewer than 32 different agencies dealing with issues of workforce development, but “no coordinating body.”

The state needs a workforce coordinator appointed by the governor who will tell members of those 32 agencies to start working together or look for other jobs, said Barlow.

“We just gotta get beyond this. The key to Hawai‘i’s success, and Kaua‘i’s success, is the ability to partner.

“You gotta collaborate at a much higher level.”

Part of the problem with collaboration in Hawai‘i is that people are very concerned that personal relationships might be casualties of collaboration, he added.

Finding a niche for the island is key, also, he continued. “You gotta find yours as well. That’s what you need to be working for,” said Barlow.

“The future isn’t bad. It’s just different,” he said. “Say ‘yes’ to change.”

Business Editor Paul C. Curtis can be reached at pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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