Dealing with labor challenges
Guam continues to grapple with manpower shortage that threatens to stall economic growth
Guam employs about 64,790 people, with 3,100 seeking jobs or an unemployment rate of 4.4 percent as of March 2018. Then there are the 51,660 working age residents who are not active in the labor force. Within this non-working group, 95 percent indicated not wanting a job and the other 5 percent desired but did not look for work for some reason. Reasons for choosing not to work include retirement, schooling, caring for children or elderly at home, according to GDOL Bureau of Labor and Statistics’ March 2018 report.
Meanwhile, island businesses are asking for more qualified employees to fill job openings. Just in 2017, the Guam American Job Center (AJC) reported almost 1,200 jobs posted in hireguam.com, almost equal to the number of job seekers in the system.
So, the opportunity lies in matching job hunters with job openings. The challenge is improving the “supply” or quality of workers to effectively match the demand of employers. In Guam, there continues to be an imbalance between supply and demand. This is true in the U.S. and many countries.
Just recently, I visited Taiwan where labor officials shared similar stories, especially gaps in manufacturing and construction. Although hiring residents would be preferable, Taiwan, like Guam, must turn to foreign laborers to fill the gap.
There’s been recent progress regarding H2B worker approvals, albeit slow, since the unprecedented denials by USCIS began in December 2015. To date, USCIS has approved 1,145 positions, and 510 H2B workers are now on island.
The ensuing shortage of skilled labor had a “chilling effect.” The Department noted how businesses could not effectively complete projects, nor willing to take on new projects given the lack of human resource. There were delays in construction of military projects, as well as in hospital improvements, schools, public infrastructure, and private buildings. Rising construction cost was also a consequence.
This growing challenge prompted GDOL to take extra measures by examining labor data and ways to improve existing services. Meetings with businesses and training providers provided insights on how to better serve employers and job seekers. For instance, a new Business Services Unit (BSU) at the AJC was created. The BSU connects with employers, as well as conduct outreach events and social media campaigns. They work to help find new workers, such as youth, women, veterans or skilled retirees to fill high demand fields.
Limited skilled workers, especially in construction, are not unique to Guam. A Wall Street Journal article by J Kusisto on July 31, 2018 reported states losing in construction “tens of thousands of workers during the economic downturn, and many never returned. Workers retired, retrained for careers in energy and other sectors, or were immigrants who returned to their home countries. The industry has failed to replenish its ranks with newcomers even as construction has boomed.”
Having a regional approach for employment and training services has been a goal of island leaders, and GDOL is helping to lead this initiative.
I grew up in an era when construction was a regular part life. Post WWII in Guam meant most families were involved in construction. However, this aging workforce has not been replaced fast enough by a new generation of skilled workers. Not enough students are considering construction or mechanical jobs. Also, experienced skilled workers may have shifted to other fields, such as our hospitality or utility sectors. With drug testing requirements or criminal history, many would be workers are disqualified or deterred to apply. These compounding factors have contributed to the shortage in skilled labor.
We all suspect why there is a low interest in the trades. In November 2016, the National Association of Home Builders conducted a study of Young Adults and Construction Trades, reporting a “low propensity to desire a career in the trades.” Construction seems too difficult and many just want less physical jobs or do not understand the income potential.
There also seems to be a public relations issue. For instance, like many parents, my father (a carpenter) wanted me to do “better” and encouraged education toward professional careers. So, compared to less laborious or highly publicized tech jobs, construction jobs have difficulty competing. With Guam’s year-round tropical climate, the desire shrinks even further.
To help increase interest, the GDOL have conducted outreach campaigns. This includes touting $30,000 - $37,000 earning potential for carpenters, masons, metalworkers, electricians and heavy equipment operators. Training programs are promoted, which are mainly federally funded through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
Participants in AJC training programs have Individual Employment Plans (IEP), are assisted to find employment, can enroll in training classes, and have wages covered with work sponsors so they may gain valuable work experience.
The department recently was awarded a State Apprenticeship Expansion grant to develop at least 500 new registered apprentices in the next three years. The State Apprenticeship Office resides within GDOL, partnering with businesses in IT, transportation, hospitality, allied health, utilities and construction. More businesses, especially in construction, are highly encouraged to develop their apprenticeship training program to grow and improve the quality of their workforce.
The College and Career Readiness Act of 2011 helped frame proactive changes in the schools, which I authored during my tenure in the 31st Guam Legislature. It required students as early as in middle-school to develop personal assessments of their skills and interests and career goals, tied to their education and the real world of jobs.
GDOL supports this initiative by working with GDOE and GCC, offering valuable labor market information or the use of the hireguam.com system as tools for teachers, counselors, parents or students to better understand and plan for real job opportunities. For example, GDOL worked with J.P. Torres Success Academy to train students in construction trades, helping teachers and students plan for future training or job placement after graduation. More hands-on or “experiential learning” in schools can further raise awareness of a student’s capabilities or interests.
Our labor circumstance is somewhat mirrored in CNMI, though I cannot speak conclusively on the labor situation in the CNMI. They have separate immigration policies, under the CW program, regarding their importation of foreign labor.
During the 2018 Micronesian Islands Forum held in Saipan, CNMI reported a 7.5 percent unemployment rate and goals to improve access to foreign workers. Following Guam initiatives, CNMI also aims to develop more local talent and strengthen business partnerships.
Having a regional approach for employment and training services has been a goal of island leaders, and GDOL is helping to lead this initiative. The agency was awarded a Reemployment Systems Integration grant of $2.1 million, the largest awarded in the nation. It funded improvement in Guam’s hireguam.com system, and provided the technical support to develop a version of same system for CNMI, Palau and American Samoa.
Building this new “web” of information on employment and training will better inform region leaders, businesses, schools and citizens.
To make this all work, our businesses must recognize their critical strategic role. States that have successfully developed their workforce have strong partnerships between businesses and schools, with the labor department providing support. Ideally, building future and current human resources should be seen as a worthwhile investment for businesses and all involved. Our people are our greatest asset is not just a cliché anymore.
Dr. Shirley “Sam” Mabini is the director of Guam Department of Labor, and former senator.