Guam's ambiguous labor situation
Updated: Feb 19
There may be no shortage of jobs or shortage of workers, but Guam has a trade skill deficit
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
“We’re hiring” signs are ubiquitous and job fairs have been regular events on Guam in the past couple of weeks, indicating the end of the pandemic-triggered drought in the job market.
With the Guam economy showing signs of recovery, local companies that cut their staff during the lockdown period have begun trying to fill the vacant positions by either rehiring furloughed employees or recruiting qualified job seekers.
“Job openings are getting a lot of applications. Now that the (pandemic unemployment assistance) is out, people are realizing that they are not getting checks anymore so they are starting to look for jobs and career opportunities,” Labor Director David M. Dell'Isola said.
A total of 160 applicants showed up at the two-day job fair hosted on Jan. 29 and 30 by AK Toyota, which has expanded its business with the recent acquisition of Morrico Equipment.
AK/Morrico is looking to fill 20 job openings including auto sales and service as well as managerial positions, according to Trina Cruz, the company’s marketing director. “It’s been very successful,” Cruz said about the weekend job fair.
Cruz said potential candidates have been screened. “Several managers have shared that there are candidates that they're going to reach out to for a second interview,” she said.
The openings, Cruz added, are a combination of new positions and existing jobs that have been vacated as a result of the Covid-related furloughs. “We've been calling back the ones who have been furloughed,” Cruz said, “but some may not be able to return.”
Market analysts believe there’s still room for employment growth considering that many people have yet to return to the workforce. And while some tourism-related businesses have either slowed down or shut down, several others have managed to stay afloat with lifesavers from the federal government’s Covid-19 stimulus and rescue grants.
“Things are opening up again and this is the best time for everyone to start preparing,” Dell'Isola said.
The labor department offers paid training opportunities for residents who seek to start a new career such as the recently concluded boot camp for new bus drivers, who will be hired by the Department of Public Works. “They got paid while training,” Dell’ Isola said. “By the time the schools open, they will be ready to operate the buses.”
To supplement its training opportunities, the labor department also offers local businesses incentives to train inexperienced residents, whose first three months’ salaries will be covered by the agency. Under this program, GDOL will pay each on-the-job training employee $9.25 per hour during the three-month training period. “We have about 40 new employers who have signed up for this program,” Dell’ Isola said.
The Guam Registered Apprenticeship Program provides tax credit incentives to eligible businesses that employ apprentices, who are training in highly skilled trades and occupations such as technicians and automotive.
Eligible businesses are entitled to tax credits against their gross receipts tax liability equal to 50 percent of the eligible training costs paid or incurred by the business. “I think this is an untapped resource that businesses should take advantage of,” Dell ‘Isola said.
According to the Guam Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate on island for September 2021 was 8.1 percent, a decrease of 3.3 percentage points from the June 2021 figure of 11.4 percent, a reduction of 9.8 percentage points from September 2020, but up 4.5 percentage points from the September 2019 pre-pandemic figure. The total number of people unemployed in September 2021 was 5,660 showing a substantial decrease in the latest quarter, but it remains well above the figure of 2,580 in September 2019.
While job fairs attract a significant amount of job applicants, the current number pales compared to previous years, said Sallie L.T. McDonald, certified job, career development and transition coach at the University of Guam’s Career Development Office.
The UOG career office hosted a series of job fairs for approximately two dozen local companies in November last year. “Prior to Covid-19, we averaged about 200 participants in five hours and an average of 40 employers. But in April 2019 we saw 600+ participants in five hours and 52 employers that attended the annual spring job fair. In 2021, we again saw 217 participants overall for the online employer recruitment activity, which was like a mini–job fair in October-December 2021.”
There are enough jobs for jobseekers on Guam, McDonald said. “My employer partners are consistent in providing their job announcements, which we post on our Triton Career Connections platform for our students and alumni to see,” she said.
Despite the closure of many businesses on Guam as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, empirical evidence— such as new restaurants and retail outlets that replaced those that closed shop— shows that a number of new businesses have opened in the past two years. The towering cranes on Marine Corps Drive, where a new commercial complex and a new fastfood chain are being built, are the herald of more new jobs in the offing.
However, the labor situation on Guam can be ambiguous, if not baffling. There may be more than enough jobs but whether there are enough people willing to work or qualified to do the jobs that are available begs the question.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 54,190 eligible workers on Guam. The bureau’s survey showed that 50,410 “did not want a job.” Of this number, 3,780 “did not look for a job,” citing a number of reasons: “believe no job is available,” “cannot find a job,” “family responsibility” “school attendance” and “cannot arrange child care.”
“As of April 2021, there were 8,150 unemployed and 1,309 job openings. These are people looking for jobs within a certain period of time, and it does not include those who choose not to seek jobs,” said Grace Donaldson, president of Allied Human Services.
“Without current data, it’s hard to assess if the 50,000 choose not to apply because of the limited job openings on Guam or because of other factors.”
Donaldson noted that Guam DOL statistics as of Jan. 20, 2022 showed 640 available jobs. “Of those 640 jobs, there are 3.87 candidates for each listed occupation,” she said. “Of the top 10 occupations, eight listed are in the construction industry, comprising about 20 percent of all job openings.
Other occupations include supervisors in food service (11 announcements) and registered nursing (11 announcements).
“Together, non-construction positions with the top 10 openings comprise about 3.4 percent,” Donaldson said.
So again, the key question is, how many Guamanians are qualified to take on the hundreds of jobs that are available, especially in the booming construction industry?
“Please note that many of these job announcements in the construction industry may be required job opening announcements for the purpose of recruiting foreign hires,” Donaldson said. “A quick search of job announcements will indicate that there is a minimum of two years of experience in these jobs.”
Guam has been dependent on the H2-B visa program to fill construction jobs, which are held mostly by Asian workers.
“If 50,000 are choosing not to seek a job, they may have the correct perception that there are no jobs available to them. So why look?” Donaldson said.
In 2015, the federal government lifted Guam’s exemption from the 66,000 national quota for H2-B visas, causing several developers to put the brakes on their projects. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security later eased the rules, noting that the influx of military personnel and activity on Guam would cause a surge in demand in the civilian construction sector such as homes, expansion of hospitals and commercial projects. The National Defense Appropriations Act 2021 provides the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services flexibility to approve H2-B petitions, but the new rule applies only for projects related to the military buildup.
“There are currently 2,277 H-2B workers on Guam, the highest since 1997 based on GDOL reports. Despite meeting this milestone, all H-2B workers on Guam are currently assigned to projects designated as ‘directly connected to, associated with or supporting’ the U.S. military realignment,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.
Guam officials believe the federal government has cloudy guidelines that leave some civilian projects, albeit related to the military buildup, out in the cold.
What incentives can companies offer to encourage people to work?
McDonald and Donaldson offered the following: health insurance (particularly important during our current pandemic situation); a flexible work schedule (particularly important to parents with young or school-age children); ability to work remotely (full or part-time); reasonable leave benefits; and contributions to retirement plans.