Bragging Rights or Brain Drain? Hawaii’s Employment Conundrum

As Congress finished its work on the federal budget for 2024, nearly six months late, a slew of notifications went out to states on their formula-funded allocations for 2024.

The U.S. Department of Laborʻs Employment Training Administration is the technical entity that overseas the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act that, among other things, run the “Americaʻs Job Centers” across the nation.
PC: “Snowy Labor Department Sign” by Matt Popovich is marked with CC0 1.0.

Some of these notices come through on the Federal Register. In other cases, they come out as grant notifications through the federal grant notification portal “”. In the case of Department of Labor notifications, this is where this intrepid blogger saw the notice.

The funding notification had to do with the allocations the Dept. of Labor sends to every state, every year, for their various “employment and training” programs done through the states’ departments of labor. The overall act that authorizes this funding is called the “Workforce Opportunities and Investment Act”, otherwise known by its acronym, WOIA.

WIOA breaks up the training programs into different categories. They are “youth activities”, “adult activities”, “dislocated workers”, “employment service”, and “workforce information grants”. And each state, based on a formula, receives an allocation from the total amount legislated by Congress, every year, in the budget.

Thus, that is why these funding allocations are called “formula grants”. In a moment, we’ll get back to how this affects the outlays a state sees.

For Hawai‘i, the program year 2024 allocation has awarded the state $12.38 million. This is down from program year 2023’s award to the state of $13.27 million, a 6.7% decrease. Across the board, in all categories, the state saw a decrease in funding ranging from a small 0.26% decrease in the allocation for workforce information to a 9.9% decrease in programs that assist youth and adult activities.

Calculating the dollar decrease just in these two programs – adult and youth – Hawai‘i lost $753,000 and change.

Meanwhile, depending on the program, a few other states saw large increases in their allocations this year. Two states – Nevada and Oregon – saw 30+% increases in their youth and adult state allotments for the program year 2024.

So, this humble blogger wondered “What is going on”, considering that both programs service key populations that need assistance in getting into the workforce. The program helps young people in and out of school who face challenges finding jobs, and preparing for college, trade schools, or other employment opportunities.

Individuals benefit from WIOA adult programs that provide job search assistance and training opportunities, helping them obtain good jobs and enabling employers to meet their workforce needs. Activities in this area are sometimes complemented with employment services that you can see, in Hawai‘i, through the state’s “HireNet” online job board.

As mentioned, the way funds are distributed hinges on a formula. One of the key factors in this formula is the state’s unemployment rate.

For Hawai‘i, the unemployment rate is hovering around 3.1%, for Nevada and Oregon, 5.1% generally. So, more money goes to states that need it more because there are more people to serve.

The durability of the Hawaii job market in both making and keeping residents employed was demonstrated with the recovery of Lahaina, and the drive to “get back to work” for so many whose lives got disrupted.
PC: “Lahaina strong” by State Farm is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

And this brings up an interesting observation about the state of employment in Hawai‘i vis a vie other states. Turns out Hawai‘i is not doing that bad in the area of placing people in employment.

Taking away the factor of whether any one job is a “quality” job or a job that can be held long enough for it to become a career, it would seem that if a person is looking for work in Hawai‘i, they can get it relatively easily.

But, adding back in the quality aspect, there are implications of this, and Hawai‘i should pay attention to it.

Hawaii’s low unemployment rate becomes a double-edged sword under the current funding formula. While it boasts low jobless numbers, this very metric cuts the state short on crucial training funds. The current system prioritizes quantity over quality, leaving residents stuck in low-wage jobs with limited upward mobility.

Imagine a talented young person eager to climb the career ladder – the very formula designed to help them is now hindering their progress. This funding gap creates a vicious cycle: low training dollars translate to fewer opportunities to “level up” skillsets, perpetuating a workforce trapped in dead-end positions.

Providing fewer opportunities for Hawai‘i residents to acquire the necessary skills for better jobs may lead to an increase in younger individuals leaving the state for job prospects on the mainland.

A case in point was the person sitting next to this blogger on the flight home from Los Angeles.

My fellow passenger, a man on his way back to help his family relocate to the mainland, perfectly illustrated the issue. He spoke of better prospects and a higher quality of life elsewhere, even if it meant leaving their Hawai‘i home. This difficult choice, driven by economics, underscores the ongoing challenge of keeping Hawaii residents here: employed, but often in jobs with limited upward mobility.

In total, the current funding formula creates a paradox for Hawaii.

While it boasts low unemployment, it fails to address the critical need for training programs that equip residents with the skills to climb the career ladder. This skills gap, which still exists, threatens to stall economic mobility and fuel an exodus of talent. Although COVID may have changed the mindset as to how to service the currently employed, we are still a long way from addressing the gap, and in turn, making a hard decision to leave the only option for many.

For more information on the WIOA program and the allocations, visit these websites,

Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act state’s allocation

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for all states

BLS Hawai‘i

BLS Nevada

BLS Oregon

Along with being born and raised in Hawai‘i, and lived in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the author of this piece – Stan Fichtman – has also worked on workforce development programs in Hawai‘i since 2008, when he was hired by the Workforce Development Council at the State of Hawai‘i Dept. Of Labor as an analyst after his stint at the Honolulu City Council. He continues to work on workforce matters in his current position at the University of Hawai‘i, having managed workforce development grants for the school.

What are your thoughts on this? Go to and share your mana‘o (thoughts) with me on this and any other subject. Who knows, I might write about it!