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Editorials 2017-December-08

No workers, no economy

WITHOUT U.S. congressional action, the CNMI will lose 3,000 workers in the next few months, and 9,000 more in the next two years.

Replacing all of them with U.S. qualified workers in the same period of time will be a tremendous task, the costs of which are likely to be prohibitive — assuming that such workers can be found and are willing to uproot themselves and move to faraway, remote islands they know little or nothing about.

Some claim that companies should simply pay higher wages to attract U.S. qualified workers. If that’s true, then why is it that U.S. employers who pay much higher wage rates in a nation of over 300 million people are also hiring foreign workers? Why do Britain, Japan and other prosperous nations that offer attractive salaries and have large populations still need foreign workers?

The fact is, if there were U.S. qualified workers for CW slots, CNMI employers would have hired them. U.S. qualified workers, if they are readily available, are cheaper mainly because hiring them doesn’t involve jumping through multiple federal bureaucratic hoops and coping with uncertainties involving national politics. But there are not enough U.S. qualified workers, especially for certain jobs: nursing, construction work, other skilled and service industry occupations.

Right now, the lack of construction workers is preventing the completion of the island’s first major investment project in decades. Also affected are local residents whose homes need to be repaired or renovated — or who need to move into new homes which can’t be built without workers. The cost of housing, not surprisingly, continues to rise, particularly in areas near the island’s commercial districts.

If not resolved, the CNMI workforce crisis will result in other hardships, affecting the quality of life and well-being of the local people.

Enter robotics

ROBOTIC technology can increase efficiency and productivity while requiring fewer people thus reducing labor costs. Manufacturing robots in the CNMI is a great idea, but it requires a highly skilled workforce which mostly cannot be provided locally, so we may come up against the CW barrier, again.

In addition, robotics may require the private sector to upgrade its own infrastructure which will be an interesting transition but is likely to cost a lot and, again, may require workers that the CNMI doesn’t have.

These and other issues should be studied further, as one of the new technology’s proponents himself said in a recent presentation: “We still have to learn a lot about the issues here and the community itself before we can move forward. Education and public awareness are very important and must be done first.”

Local culture is a caring culture

WHAT is seldom mentioned in the ongoing discussion of workforce issues is the very human impact of CW cuts. Many of the affected nonresidents have been living here for 10 or even 20 years. Some, through marriage, are related to local residents. They are our neighbors, co-workers, fellow church and/or PTA members, buddies, kumaires and kumpaires. They are the parents of our children’s friends.

In many cases they have built our houses, our public buildings, our roads, and looked after us and our loved ones’ health at the hospital or at home. They took care of our children and aging parents. They farmed our agricultural lands. They cleaned our homes and cooked our food. They repaired our car engines, fixed our appliances, styled our hair, sewed our clothes. The list of the services they have performed and are performing for the local community is long.

Kicking them out is not right. The defective federal law that requires the CNMI to turn its back on its workers should be amended.