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Beyond 2019

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Lt. Gov. Ralph Torres recently told federal officials in Washington, D.C. that the CNMI would still be short of 11,000 workers even if all unemployed U.S. workers in the Commonwealth were employed.

With a $7.1-billion Saipan casino and other “promising” investments coming in, it’s not too early to start advocating for a federal law amendment to extend the transitional Commonwealth-only worker program beyond 2019, or for employers to start applying for H visas for all their qualified employees “now” rather than wait until the 11th hour.

Other options are available. The CNMI can start aggressively hiring from the U.S. mainland, though it’s tough convincing those from the mainland to work on U.S. soil where the minimum wage is $6.05 an hour at the moment.

The CNMI can also start aggressively recruiting from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, since their citizens can freely work, travel, and study in any U.S. state or territory.

Or the U.S. Department of the Interior could revisit its 2010 recommendation to Congress to grant a more permanent U.S. immigration status to longtime, legal foreign workers to help stabilize the workforce, among other things. Immigration is now under federal control.

Whichever option or options the CNMI and/or the United States choose would have to complement ongoing and planned efforts to train and employ available U.S. workers on the islands.

Each option has its own challenges. An H-1B or H-2B classification, for example, requires salaries much more than what many CNMI employers offer their foreign workers. Many employers are also put off by the cost of an H visa application compared to a CW permit, which is subject to a yearly renewal.

Many other valuable foreign workers also would just not qualify for an H visa so they may have to exit the CNMI after 2019.

Recruiting from the CNMI’s closest neighbors—the Freely Associated States—would require substantial training funding. Torres himself said training U.S. workers for the 200 occupations currently being filled by 14,726 non-U.S. citizen workers comes with a hefty price tag of $4,000 to $6,000 apiece or some $145 million. That’s more than the CNMI’s operational budget for fiscal year 2015 alone.

That’s what’s needed “to build a substantial enough workforce to prevent the economic ramifications of losing the majority of our workforce,” Torres added.

Based on the 2014 results of a study commissioned by the Northern Marianas College, the CNMI’s education attainment level by citizenship showed that there are far more non-U.S. citizens in the workforce that possess a bachelor’s degree at 19.7 percent compared to U.S. citizens who have a bachelor’s degree at only 12.9 percent.

Torres, who represented Gov. Eloy S. Inos at the Feb. 24 plenary session of the Interagency Group on Insular Areas, traced the growth and decline of the CNMI’s workforce, as well as the steps taken to meet the challenges of current and future labor needs.

Quoting U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Torres said in his remarks that “the total number of unemployed U.S. workers in the CNMI in 2010 amounted to only about 20 percent of the 14,957 foreign workers.”

So even if all U.S. workers not in the labor force were employed, more than 11,000 jobs would still need to be filled by foreign workers. But the CW cap every year has to go down until it reaches zero by the end of 2019.

“It’s not that we don’t want to give U.S. eligible workers jobs. We just don’t have enough to support our growing needs,” Torres said, adding that the shortfall of 11,000 workers still does not include development plans “already in the works.”

Best Sunshine International’s promised $7.1-billion exclusive Saipan casino alone will require up to 4,000 employees in a wide range of occupations.

With last week’s amendment to the casino license agreement to open as early as June or July a “live” training facility that essentially mimics an actual casino gaming floor—much earlier than the anticipated start of any casino operation on Saipan—the need for a stable source of workers becomes even more immediate.

All these also come with an expectation that the CNMI add and improve infrastructure such as roads, water, power, and wastewater systems, the healthcare and education system and public safety, among other things.

The CNMI government, the business sector, and the general public would have to come together now for a unified approach to its labor and workforce needs four years before the end of the CW program and as multibillion investments are already in the pipeline, requiring much more workers than what the CNMI currently has.

Waiting for 2018, another gubernatorial election year, to come together and trumpet a unified approach will not do any good.

Perhaps the CNMI could assess whether it really needs all the “promising” investments, given its manpower and infrastructure limitations. As Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Alex Sablan suggested, maybe the CNMI could look into a “controlled development and managed growth” strategy.

Haidee V. Eugenio | Reporter
Haidee V. Eugenio has covered politics, immigration, business and a host of other news beats as a longtime journalist in the CNMI, and is a recipient of professional awards and commendations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental achievement award for her environmental reporting. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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