POIPU — While working in the hotel industry, Julie Morikawa realized there was a gap between Hawaii resorts that needed employees and local high school students who didn’t know what kind of job opportunities existed at the hotels they grew up around.
“It’s not just housekeeping. It’s not just the front desk,” she said, pointing out some of the different aspects of the hotel and service industry that offer jobs requiring a wide range of skill sets. “Everything ties back to tourism.”
Morikawa saw a problem she believed she could help solve.
“There wasn’t a connection between the industry and our keiki,” she said.
That led her to start ClimbHI, a local nonprofit with funding from the Hawaii Tourism Authority that focuses on connecting students with potential careers in tourism, Hawaii’s largest industry.
Wednesday, nearly 200 students from six Kauai high schools gathered in the ballroom of the Sheraton Kauai Resort to hear about ClimbHI’s LEI program, listen to a speech from Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami and get behind-the-scenes tours of major resorts.
The LEI Program is the largest workforce development program in the state, according to Morikawa, ClimbHI president and CEO.
ClimbHI is launching a new technology platform that will link students and teachers to “opportunity providers” — people and businesses in the tourism industry that need quality, local employees.
“We’re taking things to the next level,” she said.
ClimbHI has put on the event at the Sheraton for the past eight years as the organization expanded its reach from a few schools to where it now offers services and opportunities to every high school in the state.
One of the students who attended Wednesday, Vanessa Bright, said she came to learn more about the tourism industry and hoped to pick up on some information or skill that can help her land her dream job.
Bright wants to be an airline flight attendant because, “I get to travel. And shop. I love shopping.”
Jai Alapai, a senior at Kapaa High School, said he wants to get into nursing, but said he wanted to check out the LEI program because he thought he could learn from the parallels between nursing and the service industry.
Students were split into groups of 10 that were then dispatched to hotels and resorts around the island, where college student volunteers guided them through areas and workplaces that normally remain invisible to guests and visitors.
After the tour, students returned to the Sheraton for a job fair where they could explore opportunities in the tourism industry.
Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami told students about his experiences growing up as a “latchkey kid” on Oahu, where his father, Charles, “worked from the ground up” in a JC Penney store before moving back to Kauai to help run the family’s grocery business, Big Save Market.
“Most people know us from the big-city family,” Kawakami said. “But I think my life was more in line with some of you folks than many people can imagine.”
Kawakami described his father’s early struggles to make the Big Save grocery chain profitable.
“For the first three or four years, he wasn’t getting paid,” he said.
Kawakami’s mother, Arlene, a school teacher, made lei on the side for extra money, often working at the kitchen table until midnight.
“I can still smell the cigarettes in the air,” he recalled. “That was our life. We had to survive.”
He told the kids how he floundered through high school and was a C student. His parents sent him to the University of Hawaii, where Kawakami promptly flunked out.
“If you aren’t personally motivated and driven to succeed, you could end up how I did,” Kawakami said.
When he returned home, Kawakami expected his parents to be furious, but when he got into the car at the airport, his father told him, “I can’t say much ‘cause I got kicked out of UH, too.”
Kawakami enrolled in Kauai Community College with new resolve and dedication. He started dating a woman in his ceramics class, who later became his wife. Kawakami turned his academic career around, graduated from a four-year university and eventually got involved in politics. He served as a state legislator and Kauai councilmember before being elected mayor last year.
“I thought things were gonna be easy,” he said. “But things were never easy.”
Kawakami spoke of successes and losses, and told the students to relish the hard times as opportunities to build character.
“I want you to cherish adversity,” he said.
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.