The good ol’ days?

ABOUT 21 years ago, the local media (breathlessly) reported that CNMI officials and educators “[have] initiated steps to organize a special task force which will take the lead in preparing students acquire necessary skills that will land them competitive jobs in the future.” The Legislature, NMC, PSS, the Board of Education and the private sector had “agreed…to institute a group that will revive and improve vocational and occupational programs in schools.”

Now if we look back 30, 40 or more years, we will learn that vocational training has been one of the top goals of NMI government policy “since ever since.” (Even during the Trust Territory era when guest workers were already being hired for construction and other jobs).

In Feb. 1991, Variety reported that NMC carpentry students, as part of the Vocational Education Week celebration, were “making a six-piece furniture set, including a china cabinet, a dining room table and six chairs, two end tables and a bed with headboard.” For their part, Hopwood’s seventh and eighth graders were preparing their projects that would be displayed during the Vocational Education Festival. “There are 692 students enrolled in the six vocational areas at Hopwood,” PSS stated. Hopwood also honored its “Outstanding Vocational Teacher” who had been teaching electricity for the past seven years. In the same issue, Variety reported that five local students were in Oahu to undergo training at the Hawaii Job Corps Center.

On Rota, its high school was planning its own activities for VocEd Week while on Saipan, CNMI education officials “convened to review [a] Voc Ed framework draft” for kindergarten to sixth graders.  NMC’s “Voc Ed Student of the Year” was an inmate, one of nine “who were working to better themselves through Vocational Education.” As for NMC’s “Instructor of the Year,” he was an “innovative” teacher of basic electricity.

At MHS, during the culmination of the Voc Ed Week festivities, PSS and NMC officials “noted the close working relationship between [them as they] greatly improve vocational education in the CNMI.” NMC’s president said that through Voc Ed, “students in the CNMI will be prepared to meet the demands of the business sector.”

In 1979, in his first State of the Commonwealth Address, the CNMI’s first governor happily reported that through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, young locals had been sent to Hawaii to undergo training in “welding, automotive body and fender repair, day-care center management, refrigeration and air-conditioner maintenance, auto mechanic[s], warehousing, supply and procurement, and general office practice.” The then-governor said “support services” were also extended to local Voc Ed teachers who were training off-island.

In the next 40 years, through all the CNMI’s economic ups and downs, workforce issues have remained a “major concern” for local officials, educators and private sector.

As author Karen Casey would put it, “Wanting events to have a certain outcome can blur our view of what is actually happening.”

We’re living in the good ‘ol days

NOT a lot of people still remember that in 2008, when the late businessman Tony Pellegrino established NMTI, his private, non-profit trade school, he believed that it would cater to local residents eager to take advantage of the high paying jobs required by the military buildup on Guam. (Another largely ignored or forgotten fact: the military buildup plan served as the backdrop of the federalization of CNMI immigration: “it is the intention of the [U.S.] Congress in enacting this [federalization law]…to ensure that effective border control procedures are implemented and observed, and that national security and homeland security issues are properly addressed….”)

In an interview in 2008, Mr. Pellegrino said the graduates of his trade school “can work here, on Guam, Hawaii or the U.S. mainland at whatever pay scale the market can afford.” In fact, he said, “we will let businesses across the CNMI and Guam know who our students are from the moment they enroll.”

Today, NMTI is a government institute that can tap more federal and local funding opportunities. It is “fully supported” by the administration, the Legislature and local businesses that are hoping to create a self-replenishing pool of qualified workers who are already here. Well and good.

Then and now, however, any discussion about NMI trade/vocational education will eventually descend into bitter back-and-forth arguments over something else, including “the future.”

We do know that the extension of the federal CW-1 program ends in 2029. But we don’t know what will be the state of the local economy eight years from now or even the political mood on Capitol Hill.

We also know that

• The NMI local/indigenous population remains small. (Census 2010: Over 15,000 Chamorro and Carolinian men, women and children.)

• The NMI is not the only jurisdiction/territory/country that hires foreign workers for certain jobs.

• The NMI is competing for qualified U.S. workers with other U.S. jurisdictions/states that have higher paying jobs because these jurisdictions/states are more economically advanced.

• NMI local residents are U.S. citizens who can, if they want to, obtain a college degree, move to Guam or any of the other territories or states. They are free to choose. “What is freedom?” a great American, Frederick Douglass, once asked. “It is,” he said, “the right to choose one’s own employment. Certainly it means that, if it means anything.”

• Ever-improving technologies may allow NMI employers to outsource some of their labor needs or replace them with computers/automation.

• It should be NMI government policy to offer vocational education to local residents.

In any case, we want NMTI to succeed, and we want the NMI to have the workforce for construction and other projects that are in the pipeline. If there is a need for foreign workers for certain jobs, we want the hiring process done under federal rules and supervision. At the same time, we should continue to remind the federal government that a one-size-fits-all approach to workforce issues — which doesn’t really work on the mainland to begin with — is counterproductive when imposed on small and remote Pacific islands.

Editor

Zaldy Dandan is the recipient of the Best Editorial Writer Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the CNMI Humanities Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism. His three books are available on amazon.com

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