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Lowest unemployment in nation adds to Hawaii's allure

Updated:
HONOLULU (AP) _ Hawaii could almost change its state motto to ``Help Wanted.''

``Now hiring'' signs decorate storefront windows. Some companies entice with flexible scheduling. First Hawaiian Bank has doubled its hiring bonus to $500 besides offering gym memberships, tuition reimbursements and medical spending programs.

At 2.4 percent, Hawaii's unemployment rate for January, the most recent figure available, is the lowest in the country. The national average, which was 4.7 percent in January, rose to 4.8 percent in February, according to the Labor Department.

In other words, it's a great environment for those seeking work on the islands, said Beth Busch, president of Success Advertising Hawaii, which organizes several job fairs each year.

``If they want a job in this market, they could have one,'' Busch said.

Workers are in such high demand that businesses are offering better salaries, more benefits and extra overtime pay.

Joelle Branch, a 27-year-old single mother, found a job that allows her to have Tuesdays and Thursdays off so she can attend university classes, and she's already received a raise.

``I was looking for something that would help me make my schedule around school and allow me to find time with my son,'' said Branch, who was hired in August as an office assistant for George's Aviation Services in Honolulu.

Jamba Juice, which is rapidly expanding its smoothie outlets in the islands, offers a $10,000 bonus to store managers who stay on the job for three years.

``It's a continuous challenge to attract and retain workers,'' said Iris Matsumoto, senior vice president for human resources at First Hawaiian Bank. ``Everyone is tweaking their programs and being more creative.''

Hawaii's unemployment rate is at its lowest level since January 1991, according to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. There are only 15,300 people unemployed out of 645,700 in the total labor force.

No other state comes close to its unemployment rate. The next lowest are Florida and Virginia, at 3 percent each, while Mississippi has the highest jobless rate, at 8.4 percent.

But job hunters may want to think twice before relocating to Hawaii. Travel to anywhere beyond the islands is expensive, property values and rents are sky-high, and with a bustling economy and job market come worsening traffic, pricey lunch options and few places to get away from crowds of tourists.

On the other hand, businesses are willing to pay people higher salaries to compensate for the cost disadvantages of the island lifestyle.

``They look at it as, `We're running out of workers,''' said Tom Smyth, senior adviser for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. ``The hotels need more people, the buses need more drivers, the stores need more clerks.''

Even starting pay at most fast-food restaurants is above the minimum wage, ranging between $7 and $12 an hour.

When times are this good, laid-off workers are suddenly in demand. For example, the Sheraton Hotels in Waikiki have been recruiting some of the 700 Del Monte pineapple workers who will lose their jobs by the time the company stops its Hawaii operations in 2008.

``It's just really challenging to get workers now,'' said company spokeswoman Candice Kraughto. ``We always have positions available, but we're filling them very quickly.''

Most of the open jobs are in construction, retail, transportation, utilities, leisure, hospitality, education and health, according to the state Labor Department.

Over the next few years, Hawaii's strong economy is expected to continue on its fast pace, said Paul Brewbaker, chief economist for the Bank of Hawaii. That will open even more jobs.

Companies will be forced to offer+ better wages, and then those costs will be passed on to consumers in higher prices, he said. Eventually, that inflationary pressure puts a drag on economic growth.

``Can we keep it running this hot?'' Brewbaker asked. ``We seem to be in a fairly resilient kind of mode. ... I think we'll pull it out until 2008. With a little luck, maybe beyond.''
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