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Groundhog Day in the CNMI

Insights Live from Saipan

Saipan — In the movie “Groundhog Day,” the main character played by Bill Murray is a world-weary TV weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. Here in the Northern Mariana Islands, it is as if I’m transported back in time whenever politicians, especially the newly elected, weigh in on workforce issues.

They (unknowingly) say the same thing that has been said before and, apparently, will be said again by future politicians and elected officials. Over and over.

It seems that not a lot of officials or politicians know the history of NMI workforce issues that can’t be Googled easily.

Do any of them know that the lack of workers for certain jobs has been a major challenge for the NMI economy since at least the Japanese era, and that Japan “solved” the islands’ labor shortage by bringing in tens of thousands of workers from mainland Japan, Okinawa and Korea.

And what was the result of that workforce policy?


Historian Don Farrell said the Northern Marianas was “transformed from a costly colony into a net asset…. What Spain and Germany had not been able to accomplish in two and a half centuries, Japan had done in ten years.” By the end of the Japanese administration, Farrell said, “Garapan featured wide, clean streets lined with homes and businesses. There were dependable electric service and drinkable water. Japanese automobiles were common, but bicycles were the preferred mode of transportation.”

World War II obliterated the NMI’s vibrant economy. Under the islands’ new administrator, the U.S., the NMI “economy” consisted of big government and small business establishments. In an editorial to commemorate its 17th anniversary in March 1989, Marianas Variety recounted that when it published its first issue in 1972, “there was no growth, no development, no tourism, a small population, and few cars.

There was only one hotel, two local bars, and no restaurant.” And yet precisely because of the islands’ small population, foreign (mostly construction) workers were needed and hired back then.


In November 1979, the newly established commonwealth government of the NMI announced that it was implementing new rules for hiring “alien” workers. These included a list of critical occupations whose vacancy announcement period was reduced from 30 to seven days. Why? “The 30-day vacancy announcement period often does not serve the purpose of protecting resident workers,” then-CNMI Labor Director David Cahn said.

“With respect to several occupations which are critical to the economic development of the commonwealth, applications from resident workers are rarely, if ever, forthcoming. In these cases, the 30-day requirement serves merely as a bureaucratic exercise which delays the inevitable granting of an alien worker permit, and increases costs to both the employer and to the consumer.”

These “critical” workers included construction superintendents/foremen, heavy equipment operators, mechanics, carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians and tailors/dressmakers.

Forty-four years later, the CNMI still needs workers for these and related occupations. The CNMI, however, is no longer in charge of its minimum wage and immigration policies, and is at the mercy of faraway politicians and bureaucrats who are enforcing problematic laws created specifically for the U.S., which has the world’s largest economy with a GDP of $23 trillion, high-paying jobs, and a population of over 330 million people.

Like many other prosperous nations and jurisdictions all over the world, the U.S. is still trying to make sense of its persistent and apparently worsening labor shortage for certain jobs.


Today in the CNMI, we hear echoes of policy proposals that were first announced and implemented many, many years ago — training and apprenticeship programs, higher wages, etc. — and I’ve to wonder: who else is aware that these are old proposals?

If “concerned” public officials are truly “concerned” about the CNMI’s workforce issue, shouldn’t they study its history as well as the programs, initiatives and policies, among many other things, that have already been proposed, implemented, abandoned and eventually forgotten?

Are they even aware of the similar experiences of other jurisdictions or countries? Will they finally acknowledge that the local population is very small, and there are not enough residents willing to perform certain jobs because they have so many other employment options which include high-paying jobs in the U.S.? Do they know that the U.S. and other countries and territories lack workers even though they offer high (and ever-increasing) wage rates?

Can anyone finally connect the dots and acknowledge that a jurisdiction or country where most, if not almost all, young residents are college-bound will lack workers for certain occupations that do not require a college degree?

Do they really believe what they say, these officials who tell us that “new” and “better” government programs created by legislation will “persuade” people to do what they should do for “the betterment of all”?

Are they aware of the history of legislation and its actual results compared to its avowed goals?

Do they know that one of the oldest (misguided) notions in governance and politics is, “This time it will be different”?

Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on

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