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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Education best way to protect local jobs

By Jerry Burris

The motivation behind a legislative effort to reserve the majority of government jobs state and county for local residents is perfectly understandable.

"Local jobs for local people" is an idea that has populist appeal and which makes sense to anyone struggling to find work in a down economy. Gov. Linda Lingle was right in vetoing the bill, but the issues raised by the measure go beyond than those cited by Lingle in her veto message.

Lingle said the proposal is ambiguous, would put extra burdens on government contractors at a time they can hardly afford it and would impose enforcement costs on the state.

All true enough, one supposes. But there is more. First, there is a question whether this idea is unconstitutional.

Of course, there are many jurisdictions around the country, states and counties that have imposed similar residency requirements for government work. But they often fail to pass constitutional muster. Generally, there must be clear evidence that the obvious burdens imposed on out-of-state job seekers are outweighed by the social gain enjoyed by the jurisdiction imposing the restriction.

That is, are there many out-of-work contractors and construction workers who are on the bench simply because someone has hired from out of state? Are the skills of the unemployed local workers and the outsiders equal?

In the 1970s, Gov. George Ariyoshi sought to impose a much more sweeping residency regime as a way of dramatizing Hawai'i's determination to control its own fate and not be overrun by outsiders. The message was clearly heard, but the specifics of his proposals quickly fell on legal grounds.

Then there is a more subtle issue to consider in the local jobs for local folks proposal. If it is true that contractors are hiring Mainlanders over local applicants, we need to ask why. Could it be that local applicants, in far too many cases, simply don't cut it?

Local companies are frequently heard complaining that job applicants lack basic math and English skills. Our community colleges find themselves teaching remedial basic math and language skills before they can move on to the more technical training their students seek.

If Hawai'i could produce a work force well trained, educated and ready to work, there would be no need to look elsewhere except in the rare case of a job that requires particular expertise not to be found on the Islands.

If we want companies to hire locally, let's put the resources in place to get the job force ready.