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Column: Diversifying Hawaii’s economy needs youth input

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As a member of Generation Z, I see too many young people leaving Hawaii because there aren’t enough opportunities here.

Hawaii loses about 13,000 residents to the mainland every single year. These families can trace their genealogy back decades, to the immigrants who enriched our diverse home, or even back centuries, to the Hawaiian kingdom and beyond. But let’s get one thing straight: Most of them do not want to leave Hawaii; they have been forced out as a result of our state government’s incompetence at making living here a possibility.

COVID-19 has revealed the weaknesses of our state’s fragile economy. We rely too much on tourism, which is particularly dangerous because almost all factors that determine the success of the tourism industry are outside of our control.

This has led to a justified call to diversify our economy and bring balance to our tourism-dependent state. Let us not forget, though, that we have been around this block many, many times. Economic diversification has been attempted since the days of Gov. John Burns and failed essentially every time except for the case of building the very tourism industry that put us here.

Rather than utilizing our unique advantages, our state government has tried, unsuccessfully, to make Hawaii “the next Silicon Valley” through tech tax credits or “the next Johns Hopkins” through research investments that were ended too early. Meanwhile, few attempts have been made to reform burdensome regulations that stymie any chance of real progress or promote cooperation between siloed and uncooperative state agencies.

Risk-taking and bold visions are frowned upon; our leaders would rather make no decision than risk an error. We simply don’t believe in ourselves, even when we could be global leaders in energy, oceanography or agriculture, as our top companies like Oceanit have demonstrated.

For too long we have put our faith in the state government as our savior, but the true story of Hawaii is one of creating a future for ourselves, not waiting for others.

For example, Gov. Burns made our university world-class not by micromanaging it but by entrusting it to visionary leaders, and the ʻIolani Palace took a chance with electricity before even the White House. Would our current government officials have the courage to take such brave, risky actions? Our state’s successes are seemingly despite our recent leaders’ actions, not because of them.

As a result, if our youth wish to thrive in Hawaii, we must model our bold past and make some necessary sacrifices. We, millennials and Generation Z, have to reject higher-paying jobs that currently exist on the mainland and instead return to our home and shape this place into the world we envision, not just hope that the government will miraculously change its long-entrenched ways. That means not just filling jobs but creating them.

We do this not out of anger but out of love for our home. We want our state to turn this pandemic into an opportunity to grow other areas of our economy by fully investing in industries like energy, not just the usual passing of a bill that makes minor changes so legislators can pretend they did something, while the project inevitably fails.

We want action that will put us back in control of our economy, not just another can kicked down the road. In the meantime, we will prepare and educate ourselves, so that when it’s time for us to lead, we will not fail the test. This is our story, not as the next Silicon Valley or some other foreign place, but as our renewed Hawaii, and that is something worth sacrificing for.

Evan Gates is a student at Harvard University, class of 2023; he is a 2019 graduate of Kamehameha Schools Kapalama.

“Raise Your Hand,” a monthly column featuring Hawaii’s youth and their perspectives, appears in the Insight section on the first Sunday of each month. It is facilitated by the Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders.