CNMI braces for worker shortage

Labor force can’t keep up with flurry of developments
Best Sunshine International, Ltd., which is set to open the Grand Mariana Resort and Casino on this location later this year, is among the developers in the CNMI who will need thousands of workers to operate their upcoming projects. (Frauleine Villanueva-Dizon)

Best Sunshine International, Ltd., which is set to open the Grand Mariana Resort and Casino on this location later this year, is among the developers in the CNMI who will need thousands of workers to operate their upcoming projects. (Frauleine Villanueva-Dizon)

Human resources, especially of upcoming developers, in the Commonwealth have in front of them challenges in filling up their positions in the coming years.

Among those that are in the forefront is Kensington Hotel Saipan, which is set to open around June of this year.

According to Ginger Choi, human resources director of E-Land Group’s Micronesia Resort Inc., they need about 334 employees for 100 different positions as they open for operations.

Recently, Kensington held a two-day job fair to seek possible employees that are already on island.

Choi said they received 380 applications from U.S. and non-U.S. citizen nationals on island but only about 180 passed for second interviews.

To fill the positions, Choi said they will be looking at foreign countries depending on the final results of their hiring process on Saipan.

Choi said it was quite challenging for them to hire on island.

“I experienced that I offered them an interview and contacted them for a job offer, but many times they don’t show up and many times they say it’s too far or they have some kind of reason,” Choi said.

Choi foresees that it will be very challenging for their company if they won’t be able to have CW workers.

“The hotel, we are not targeting only English-speakers, not only local people. We are international and looking at multi-cultural guests. It would be good for us if we can hire some of them from overseas who has the language skills and different backgrounds, different cultures to provide better quality of service to our customers,” Choi said.

Nevertheless, the company is preparing should the hiring of foreign workers no longer be an option by 2019.

As part of their strategy, Kensington said they are targeting the young generation and will be having close relationships with the Northern Marianas College as well as high schools to have training programs for students.

Aside from this, Choi said there is also a need for the government to reach out and educate the people to train their mindset.

“Sometimes when I interview, I feel like they don’t have motivations to work. They are not hungry for the job,” Choi said, “I think a kind of campaign or training from the government to keep reminding them why a job is important for their career lives for better living.”

Kensington Hotel will be adding 313 rooms on Saipan.

Two more developers are set to open this year. Honest Profit International, which will be opening the Saipan Hotel Resort in San Antonio, will be adding in 300 rooms while Best Sunshine International, Ltd. will add 373 rooms with the opening of their phase 1 hotel, Grand Mariana Casino & Hotel Resort in Garapan.

BSI senior vice president for operations Donald Browne earlier said that they will need about 1,500 to 2,000 more workers this year.

For construction alone, BSI needs about 2,000 workers for their project such as steel fixers, carpenters, free masons, welders, electricians, engineers, painters, architects, and interior designers among others, according to data from the CNMI Department of Labor.

Asked where they will get the workers, Browne said they will bring in workers from wherever they can and get as many locals. He added that they are working with the Northern Marianas Technical Institute in regards to training local people.

In the years ahead, more workers are projected to be needed by BSI for the phase two of their project that was said to be “at least 10 times bigger” than phase one. It will feature thousands of rooms in about 20 hotels, multiple casinos, the world’s largest water park, and a kilometer-long shopping mall.

BSI has earlier expressed their interest to see the CW worker program be extended and said that they will be working with the business community to promote the extension.

For Tinian, about 5,000 employees will be needed for one project alone which is Alter City Group’s Plumeria Resort to be built on their Puntan Diablo Cove property and will have about 6,000 rooms.

Not enough workers

“By last count, there are over 15,000 rooms advertised or in the pipeline to be built in the CNMI over the next 10 years,” now Saipan Chamber of Commerce secretary Alex Sablan said in his recent address to fellow members in the business community.

Calculating employee needs via the 0.72 individuals per room human resource ratio for hotels, Sablan said the 15,000 rooms proposed will need 10,800 employees—not including those who will work in other amenities of a hotel or resort.

“This does not count the stated 3,500 employees to operate the casino and an additional 5,000 to operate the integrated resort and ancillary retail and F&B outlets that are proposed to come due to the tourism bubble the CNMI has derived in the last two years,” Sablan said.

“Over 18,500 employees will be required just for hotel and casino development alone and I haven’t even included Tinian’s requirement for their proposed casino, golf course, integrated resource,” he added.

Sablan said with a quota of 11,999 CW visas and roughly 1,600 remaining available, “It will be tough to realistically believe we can fill the remaining 15,000 estimated workforce with the Micronesians, Guamanians, and U.S. mainlanders.”

“The CW visa worker and the valued human resources that contribute greatly to the success of the CNMI will undoubtedly be needed for the foreseeable future well beyond 2019. The fact of the matter is there are just not enough CNMI local or U.S. residents to meet the demand of our current and more importantly our future economy,” Sablan said.

“We need a foreign national worker here year round for the foreseeable future. We need to measure this. The government, CNMI and federal, need to collaborate to come up with a position paper or a report that establishes what our needs are,” he added in an interview.

Transitioning and right-sizing developments

CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Edith DeLeon Guerrero has also said prior that there is not enough workers on island for the upcoming developments.

“The reality is we will never have sufficient workers to populate the pipeline. Especially those that are considered the higher-end jobs,” DeLeon Guerrero said, “There’s insufficient [workers] to populate the pipeline that’s reality.”

Like Sablan, who called for transitioning of some qualified workers from CW to H-visas, DeLeon Guerrero believes that employers should look into getting H-visas for their employees.

“We really need do start looking at taking advantage of the exemption that we have right now for the H-visa application,” DeLeon Guerrero said.

Currently, the CNMI is not included in the national H-visa cap.

While the government and stakeholders are working on a case to present numbers for the 902 talks and to show U.S. Congress the workforce needs of the Commonwealth, Sablan said there is also a need to prove that the CNMI is doing its best to transition.

“It is harder, it is more expensive, but really, what you’re supposed to be going after is a U.S. citizen. If you can’t do that, then, like everyone else in the United States, you have to go for an H-visa,” Sablan said.

“USCIS and the local government should start denying skilled labor positions that can avail for H-visa, they must go to the H-visa,” he added.

Sablan also reiterated the need to right-size the developments that are on island.

“We need to sit down and talk about this stuff, come to an agreement that we have limitations with labor, limitations with the people that are coming in, should we be having 2 million visitors a year, is it realistic, if its achievable, should we even do it?” Sablan said.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Ind-MP) echoed Sablan’s sentiment saying that the Commonwealth needs to look into the developments that are being projected right now.

“For me personally, we have on the table right now $13 billion worth of planned investment,” Sablan said, “I think it’s important that we take a pause and look at what we have on the table and try and get this done.”

“Let’s finish what we have. If we keep piling it up, we may not succeed, we may not develop it to our benefits,” he added.

Aside from taxing the CNMI’s resources and infrastructures such as the power plants and sewer plants, Sablan also noted issue on labor force.

“We need to continue to train and educate our local workforce. We need to continue to promote access to U.S. workers,” Sablan said.

This year being an election year, the changes in the federal government will also play a role in the future labor and immigration laws applicable to the CNMI.

“We need to analyze and project long term our needs if any of workers from third country nationals after 2019, for how long and how many,” Sablan said.

“We need to be able to project the data properly,” he added.

Frauleine S. Villanueva-Dizon | Reporter
Frauleine Michelle S. Villanueva was a broadcast news producer in the Philippines before moving to the CNMI to pursue becoming a print journalist. She is interested in weather and environmental reporting but is an all-around writer. She graduated cum laude from the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in Journalism and was a sportswriter in the student publication.

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