Using the islands' historical data, a visiting education expert said the Commonwealth's lack of a well-educated workforce is not a strong base in which to build the future of the CNMI on.
Dennis Jones, from the National Center of Higher Education Management System, believes that the islands' situation will worsen in the years ahead unless action is taken now to accelerate the production of well-educated workers.
“You have a U.S. citizen population that is not well-educated, not quite U.S. standards, and certainly not by global standards. The CNMI, based on data, is below every state and not competitive even against places like Japan. This [record] is not a strong base where to build the future of your economy,” Jones told the crowd of over 200 participants in yesterday's general membership meeting of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce at the Saipan World Resort.
Jones is on island to lead a two-day summit for the Northern Marianas College.
In comparing the CNMI with nations and other states in the “percentage of young adult degree attainment” from ages 25-34, Jones' presentation indicated that the CNMI is only at 27 percent, way below the record of such states as North Dakota and Massachusetts at 54 percent; New York at 50 percent; or Washington at 41 percent. The CNMI's data is also far lower than other countries like Japan and Canada at 56 percent or Korea at 62 percent.
Jones said the best performing states are determined by an educated population that land in the proper workforce and workplaces.
With the expected exodus of foreign workers by 2014 or beyond, Jones believes this will further worsen the workforce situation as the Commonwealth starts to rely on residents. He stressed the importance of taking immediate actions, through various types of partnerships and collaborations, among and between parties such as the community college, the private sector, and the government.
“The CNMI is in midst of huge economic and demographic change. It is in a transition point. As I look at the data, the CNMI has not taken the opportunity to prepare itself early well for this transition,” he said, expressing the “scary data” and alarming reality that the private sector would soon suffer with the exodus of contract workers.
Foreign workers comprise the majority of private sector employees at present.
Only 60.3 percent of locals under the working population are employed, compared to the 91.2 percent labor participation of non-U.S. citizens, based on data presented by Jones on the first day of the summit.
“The reality here is: only 60 percent are in the workforce while 40 percent [locals] are out of the workforce. You have a large unemployment rate with 6,000 young people who are unemployed and even worse, lack both skills and motivation to get into the workforce,” said Jones.
He said the average U.S. states have 75 to 80 percent of its citizens in the workforce.
He specifically cited the CNMI's need to “maintain” the functions of essential services such as schools, hospitals, and stores, which heavily rely on the expertise and skills of mechanics, maintenance, construction workers, and health professionals-majority of which are contract workers.
He warned that the 40-percent “unemployed population” is considered non-contributing members of society and economy, and potentially would become “takers” of such things like social security, criminal justice system, and healthcare system.
For Jones, “education matters not only for the workforce but in all kinds of social and civil purposes.”
An island of small businesses
Since the collapse of the garment industry, Jones said the CNMI has become an island of small businesses, with the government considered as the biggest employer for its population.
“I can tell you it's unsustainable because government is a money user and not money generator. Unless there is a viable sector in the economy, you are not able to sustain government services [in this way],” he said.
Based on data, the CNMI has 2,908 establishments with 21,399 employees-both locals and nonresidents. Of these establishments, more than half or 1,705 companies have only up to four employees while 465 companies have no personnel at all. Only 20 establishments are considered big with 100 to 1,000 employees. Only two companies have more than 1,000 personnel.
By ethnicity, contract workers from Philippines have the highest number in the workforce with 5,625 employees; while U.S. citizens born in CNMI totaled 5,088. Those from China number 796; U.S. citizens born outside the CNMI, 756; unknown, 483; Freely Associated States, 385; Korea, 282; Japan, 204; Bangladesh, 157; other Asian countries, 282; and other Pacific islands, 15.
Jones also raised concerns about the CNMI's lack of another industry aside from tourism. Besides the hospitality industry, the CNMI has no other, he said.
Jones cited the important partnership that needs to be taken by the Public School System and NMC. The islands, he said, cannot afford a situation where two-thirds or three-quarters of its high school graduates enter NMC for ESL programs, for example.
He said the private sector-through the Saipan Chamber of Commerce-must step up and be involved in determining the programs offered by NMC.
“Clear your expectations to the college. Part of your job is to raise the bar and it's important you send this signal. Employers, in other states, are clear that if 'you don't have this certification, you can't get hired!'” added Jones.