A visitor industry-supported workforce development program kicks off this week to encourage young people to pursue tourism careers, an important recruitment step at a time when the state’s visitor industry is vying to attract candidates amid record unemployment lows.

The state’s unemployment rate in February was 2.1 percent, the lowest in the nation. In February, Hawaii’s largest source of jobs, the leisure and hospitality category, reported 127,300 jobs, a gain of 100 positions from February 2017. Filling those jobs, especially with Hawaii students who have experience, is harder than ever, said Julie Morikawa, founder and CEO of ClimbHI, which runs the LEI program, which stands for Leadership, Exploration and Inspiration.

“It’s very important, especially at times of low unemployment, that we are showing our future generation all the tourism opportunities that are available throughout the islands. We need local students if we want our industry to stay unique and special,” Morikawa said.

Morikawa, who returned to her native Hawaii to work in tourism after graduating from Cornell University, said she launched ClimbHI in 2011 because she felt a connection was lacking between high schools and the state’s No. 1
industry.

George D. Szigeti, Hawaii Tourism Authority president and CEO, said the agency now provides $70,000 to the LEI program.

“The LEI program shows Hawaii teens the enormous range of career opportunities tourism can o􀃗er them. This program deserves HTA’s support,” Szigeti said.

Morikawa said generous support from HTA as well as businesses and volunteers has allowed ClimbHi to invite all public high school students in the state to this year’s LEI program, which is expected to reach a thousand-student
milestone, she said.

This year’s event kicks off today on Maui at the Sheraton Maui where Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa will speak to students. Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho will speak Friday when the event travels to the Sheraton Kauai. On Monday, Gov. David Ige and First lady Dawn Amano-Ige as well as Jon Snook, Hawaiian Airlines executive vice president and chief operating officer, are expected to address students during the Oahu program at the Hawai’i Convention Center. The event takes place April 17-18 on Hawaii island at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

LEI also provides leadership opportunities for about 100 local college students. Richard Dean Danao, a Hawaii Pacific University student who is assisting with the 2018 ClimbHI events, said the experience has been invaluable.

“I’ve gained a sense of accomplishment, a network with key people, and the opportunity to get my name out there since I’m at the point of graduating. It is knowledge I would not be able to gain anywhere else and that fueled my passion for the hospitality industry,” Danao said in a statement.

Morikawa said there are plenty more LEI successes. For instance, Shawn Saito, sales manager at The Orchid Lei Co., is a former ClimbHI intern who now participates in the career fair portion of the LEI program.

“The LEI program changed my entire trajectory, not just in what classes I took in college or in selecting my major, but it shaped who I am from wanting to give back to my community and wanting to make the visitor experience the most enjoyable. I think it is such a rewarding experience to help people make memories that will last a lifetime,” Saito said in a statement.

Students from 37 schools participated in last year’s LEI program, including the Maui high schoolers pictured above. T
event will include programs across the islands throughout this month. Photo courtesy of LEI

By Allison Schaefers, Honolulu Star Advertiser