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Demand for tourism jobs drops, but CNMI still struggling with labor shortage in construction

By Bea Cabrera

Saipan—At the time of vaccines and booster shots, the pandemic is still felt, worrisome and making economies in many parts of world decline. In the CNMI where tourism is the lifeblood of the economy, the need for foreign workers has taken a back seat since only 30 percent of hospitality-related establishments are currently in operation.

The CNMI saw a 30 percent drop in its foreign workforce from 2020 to 2021 alone and an over 40 percent plunge compared to the year 2019.

Public Law110-229 placed CNMI immigration under federal control in 2010 and gave birth to the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker (CW-1) program. The CW-1 visa, which is unique to CNMI, allows foreigners to work in the CNMI.

The islands have relied for many decades on foreign workers for construction, engineering and mechanical skills, fill-up office positions, healthcare and service-oriented businesses. The shortage of CW-1 workers in the CNMI hampers construction projects and the healthcare system.

To encourage priority hiring of U.S. citizens, the USCIS has set a cap on the number CW-1 slots per year. The cap is lowered each yet with the goal to eventually reach zero. The CW-1 program is scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2029.

CNMI Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente said occupations that were eliminated from the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Foreign and Labor Certification in fiscal year 2021 were mostly tourism-related. “These jobs were tour guides and escorts, fast food preparation and serving workers, janitors and cleaners,” she said.

“The decrease in demand for these particular occupations is indicative of the decline in the CNMI's tourism industry, due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 within our source travel markets, namely South Korea, Japan, and China,” she added.

Benavente said while the tourism industry is currently on pause, occupations in top jobs that are in demand remain sturdy. “This is due to the existing structures, recovery projects, ongoing and new development projects. Also, the food chain industries such as fast-food, restaurants and other food concessions remain in demand for services.”

“The drop does not mean that the CNMI still doesn't require CW1 employees for certain occupations. We will continue to hire CW1 employees in the construction and trade occupations because we just don't have enough of a local/U.S. workforce to fill those particular positions,” she added.

The CW-1 program was originally scheduled to be terminated on Dec. 31, 2019. However, President Donald Trump extended the program until 2029 through the CNMI-US Workforce Act signed on July 24, 2018.

The Northern Marianas Technical Institute conducts skills development training to help U.S. citizens acquire ample skills in trade and other jobs that are typically picked up by CW-1 workers.

In an earlier interview, NMTI chief executive officer Jodina Attao said the institute’s goal is to develop a strong pool of local workforce. “We want to have 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 established that are beneficial to our workforce development in the CNMI,” Attao said.


Partnerships include the CNMI Department of Labor, Public School System, Northern Marianas College, Department of Corrections – Outreach Program, Substance Abuse and Addiction Rehabilitation – HOPE Recovery Center, Island Training Solutions, Child Care Development Fund, corresponding offices on the island of Tinian and Rota, as applicable, and other community members and stakeholders.

“Building systematic and community capacity with these partners, will help us move toward a more comprehensive approach at helping individuals and organizations in acquiring a global perspective in acquiring trade skills and other specialized career opportunities to increase numbers for a highly trained and skilled workforce,” she added.

Benavente said her office is working on a federal grant to help individuals acquire new skills that would eventually help them get a job. “We call it the ‘Good Jobs Challenge’ which hopes to basically provide funding for training individuals who want to a new employment skill or trade,” she said. “The training would be focused on healthcare, information technology, and other fields approved by the U.S. Commerce Economic Development Administration.”


Benavente said she keeps in touch with employers and business owners to check the status of their operations as the coronavirus pandemic entered its third year. “Employers are hoping, as we all are, for the return of the CNMI's tourism industry,” she said.

A recent business needs assessment survey revealed that a majority of the employers were optimistic about their future plans for investment and renovations, Benavente said.

“We have experienced so many challenges in just the last five years that impacted the economy of the islands,” the labor director said. “Starting with Super Typhoon Soudelor in 2015, the rise and fall of the gaming industry, Typhoon Mangkhut, Super Typhoon Yutu, and now with the Covid-19 pandemic. All these challenges have forced us to adapt and to survive together as a community intent on rebuilding resilience.”

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