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CNMI still struggling to attract and retain US workers

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Despite an annual expenditure of between $1.8 million and $2.4 million on vocational education, apprenticeship and other training programs, the CNMI has been unable to attract U.S. workers to pick up local jobs and retain those employed.

Assessments made by the Government Accountability Office concluded that the CNMI has been unable to surmount many of its inherent challenges.

Citing interviews with local and federal officials, GAO\ said the types of workers the CNMI needs for its economy are in low supply locally and in high demand in the rest of the U.S.

"For example, CNMI has a high demand for healthcare personnel and skilled construction workers," GAO said in its Feb. 14 report. "These types of workers are also in high demand in many other places, according to agency officials."

Officials also noted that the CNMI is generally not in a competitive position to attract skilled workers due to its remote location, relatively low wages and high cost of living. Besides these weaknesses, other U.S. locations offer greater

 access to healthcare and higher education for workers and their families.

GAO noted that the costly airfares among the islands contribute to challenges in recruiting and retaining U.S. workers in CNMI.

"We found that U.S. workers made up at least half of CNMI’s employed workers between calendar years 2018 and 2022, based on our analysis of CNMI’s tax data," GAO said.

However, GAO said the exact annual ratio of U.S. to foreign workers was uncertain, due to the presence of workers who could not be categorized

as either U.S. or foreign.

"For example, in 2018 we found 53 percent of the workers were U.S. workers

 and another 13 percent of the workers had missing visa information or invalid data entries," GAO said.

"While the U.S. portion of workers in CNMI increased in 2022 compared with 2018, our analysis of CNMI’s tax data indicates that the total number of workers decreased by about 5,000 workers, representing a 17 percent decrease over that same period," GAO said.

The total number of workers in CNMI decreased each year from 2018 to 2021 before increasing between 2021 and 2022.


Before the federal takeover in 2009, the CNMI heavily relied on foreign workers. Since it had local control of its labor and immigration, the CNMI had been unable to easily bring workers from Asian countries.

In 2009, the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, which established the CW-1 program, called for a reduction in the allocation of permits on an annual basis to reach zero by the end of the program.

"The numerical limits on CW-1 permits available each fiscal year have generally decreased over time, from 22,417 at the start of the program in 2011 to 14,500 in 2022," GAO said. "In 2023, CNMI’s Department of Labor reported on its efforts to place U.S. workers into jobs held by foreign workers."

The report  also outlined a plan for continuing these employment efforts

 in 2024 with a focus on fields such as nursing, construction, business, hospitality and tourism.

However, while still recovering from the pandemic, the CNMI is still at risk of a severe economic crisis and has limited prospects for recovery due to various factors, GAO said.

The CNMI's tourism industry remains stagnant and the Imperial Pacific casino resort is unlikely to reopen.

The number of annual visitors remained below 100,000 in 2022 compared with nearly 700,000 in 2017.


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