Saipan— Historically, the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands has been dependent on a foreign workforce. The federal takeover of labor and immigration in 2008 may have slowly changed the tide but statistics still leave much to be desired.
According to the Government Accountability Office’s 2020 report, the ratio of U.S. workers to foreign workers in the CNMI remained close to 50 percent from 2014 through 2018, with U.S. workers making up 49 percent of the workforce in 2018.
Over the years since the demise of the garment industry, tourism became the largest component of the CNMI economy, growing from 12 percent in 2007 to 45 percent in 2017.
But the Covid-19 pandemic, which put the visitor sector on hold, underscores the need for the CNMI to develop a homegrown workforce that is not fully reliant on a volatile industry that is at the mercy of external forces.
On the trades side, the CNMI continues to face the challenge of building a local labor pool to pick up construction jobs.
In a community flooded by federal coronavirus-relief aid, education officials and labor experts saw the need to accelerate the goal to create more reliable job opportunities lest workers fall into complacency. After all, the stimulus funds are expiring in September.
The Northern Marianas College and Northern Marianas Technical Institute focus on youth, helping them lessen reliance on aid and become productive members of the community. Frankie Eliptico, vice president of advancement and administration of the Northern Marianas College, said the college issued 245 certificates and degrees in April.
“We have over 200 graduates, a combination of classes 2020 and 2021. I like to stress their achievements because they are in our community. They are employed by business organizations and they are helping to power our economy,” he said.
“Many of our students are juggling a full-time job, a family, taking care of their elderly and many other obligations. I want to rid this mentality that many of our students are just going to school. We do have many non-traditional students and they deserve recognition,” he added.
NMC has seen the number of degrees and certificates increase over the years. “In fact, if you look at the numbers from 2010, it has more than doubled. I wanted to show that because we see more and more students looking to NMC for their personal and professional growth,” he said.
NMC’s bachelor's degree programs include business management and education, nursing, business administration, hospitality, criminal justice, liberal arts and certificate programs in hospitality operations, computer applications and basic law enforcement.
The Community Development Institute offers custom programs to match the specific needs of organizations.
“Whether it's a class in Excel, or an executive development class, we can custom create the class for you,” Eliptico said. “We have worked with many organizations, with providing the required certification for tour guides with students who are earning their master's degree in partnership with Wayne State University and many other institutions.”
Eliptico said besides providing education, the institute also helps students find job opportunities.
“We have partnered with various organizations like the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, Northern Marianas Technical Institute, the CNMI Department of Labor, non-profit organizations and other agencies to help make sure that we are meeting local workforce needs,” he added.
Established 13 years ago, the Northern Marianas Technical Institute’s curriculum was developed in accordance with the core skills needed by businesses in the commonwealth. Its slogan, “Learning by Doing,” is impressed on each student so the skills earned after graduating can help them to either start their own business or join the workforce.
Jodina Attao, the institute’s interim CEO, said the goal is to work toward establishing stronger partnerships with relevant government agencies and private companies.
“To be able to leverage resources, decrease duplication of efforts, and create systematic alignment with the various activities are the benefits to our workforce development in the CNMI,” she said.
Partnerships include the CNMI Department of Labor, Public School System, Northern Marianas College, Department of Corrections Outreach Program, Substance Abuse and Addiction Rehabilitation’s HOPE Recovery Center, Island Training Solutions, Child Care Development Fund and corresponding offices on Tinian and Rota.
“Building systematic and community capacity with these partners will help us move toward a more comprehensive approach in helping individuals and organizations acquire a global perspective about trade skills and other specialized career opportunities to increase the numbers of a highly trained and skilled workforce,” Attao said.
The institute currently offers construction-related programs such as carpentry, construction craft laborer, masonry and plumbing, electrical and electronic systems, heating, ventilation, welding, and automotive technology. It also offers culinary arts.
“We are working on finalizing a memorandum of agreement with Island Training Solutions to offer hotel and restaurant operations at the PSS high schools and at the technical schools for those interested,” Attao said.
“In addition, Island Training Solutions is a licensed certification provider under the National Bookkeeping Association, so plans to include that in our course offerings are underway.”
For this coming fall semester, the institute is targeting at least 120 students for various courses. “We are currently at 61 students and are continuing to promote through marketing campaigns and other social and print media outlets,” Attao said.
Regardless of the federal and local financial aid available in the CNMI before and during the pandemic, Attao said the institute aims to help the individual islands build their workforce capacities.
“As a whole, we want them to be self-sufficient, productive members of society that take part in building thriving communities,” Attao said. “We would like to establish a strong partnership with the mayors of Tinian and Rota to assist them with their capacity-building efforts.”
The institute plans to offer scholarships to 10 to 12 residents from each island, with a focus on each of the trade courses it offers.
Attao said the ultimate goal is to send those students back to their respective islands, where they will become trade instructors under the technical institute.
“It is a perfect example of a cost-saving measure that is sustainable for all parties involved because courses offered at our institute are very hands-on and involve many partnerships,” Attao said. “The type of graduates we hope to produce are vetted individuals who have been equipped with the relevant skills needed at specialized trades and have received a high-quality educational experience, including real-time experiences through apprenticeships.”