KIHEI - Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Maui Economic Development Board.
When the nonprofit began, most of Maui's jobs were in the tourism, service and agriculture industries. Many of the Valley Isle's best and brightest students went off island to study and found rewarding jobs and careers on the Mainland.
Reacting to this "brain drain," the founders of MEDB sought "to broaden our economic base and provide employment to the young people of Maui, including former residents who would like to return," the late Colin Cameron of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., a founding MEDB board member and the former president of Maui Publishing Co., said in 1981, during a conference of island leaders. "We are seeking to start a process which will lead to community-accepted new economic directions which both the public and private sectors working together can follow."
JEANNE UNEMORI SKOG, MEDB President and Chief Executive Officer
Fast forward three decades and MEDB President and Chief Executive Officer Jeanne Unemori Skog said the nonprofit agency remains committed now and into its next 30 years to being "ready to embrace innovation and empower Maui County's residents to build dreams and achieve success right here at home."
Back in 1982, 150 to 175 people worked in technology jobs in Maui County, Skog said. Now, the "best estimate" available is that 2,300 people are employed in high-technology positions in Maui County, with workers earning an average of $70,000 per year, she said.
Overall, 67,200 people were employed in Maui County in 2011, according to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Of those jobs, 18,900 were in accommodation and food service positions, 9,500 were in government and 1,600 were in agriculture. While there's no "high technology" employment category, there is a "professional, scientific and tech services" sector, which employed 1,400 people last year in Maui County, the department reported.
"We believe our work at MEDB has changed people's lives," Skog said. "Young people who grow up here can choose to build a life at home, support a family and enjoy the fruits of their hard work. If they go away to school, they don't have to give up their professional goals if and when they want to come back. Maui Economic Development Board paves the way for people to achieve their dreams."
Shane Tajima, the webmaster at the University of Hawaii Maui College, and Jamie Legsay, a geographic information systems administrator at Maui Electric Co., are two residents who've launched high-tech careers after taking advantage of MEDB programs.
Legsay was the first apprentice to finish MEDB's Women in Technology program.
"MEDB has been an instrumental driving force in providing high-tech employment opportunities for women like me," she said. "Through their efforts, I was able to stay here on Maui, work in a career that I enjoy and more importantly a career that helps me provide for my family."
Legsay said she is one of two GIS administrators at MECO, a position she has held for a little more than three years. She's responsible for providing mapping services for the electric company and for maintaining GIS applications.
"The GIS applications that we serve provide analysis of MECO's electrical system to various departments within the company," she said.
While Tajima is UH-Maui College's webmaster, he's also studying for his bachelor's degree in applied business and information technology at the college (he's set to graduate this semester) and he's an intern for Ardent Management Consulting, a software development company.
"There, I work on creating business applications for company management," he said. "This was a summer 2011 internship that was arranged by MEDB, which led to the company hiring me part time at the end."
Tajima said he has been interested in technology since the 4th grade, but he did not make a career choice until he was a sophomore at Maui High School and took part in a "Tech Careers Day" event at MEDB. The event provided students with a tour of the various companies at the Maui Research & Technology Park, opened in 1991 in Kihei, and allowed them to meet professionals in high-technology positions.
"Before that point, I never knew the tech park existed along with the opportunities for tech careers on Maui," he said. "That day was when it snapped in my head and was the starting point that I wanted to work in the tech park for a company doing tech research and development."
Skog said that from MEDB's inception, it recognized that addressing the demand for science, technology, engineering and math skills "would be critical to realizing success in the 21st century."
"The tech sectors - astronomy, optics, information technology, renewable energy, etc. - require a steady, growing stream of tech-ready residents," she said.
The nonprofit reaches more than 10,000 students and teachers annually in Maui County, including students on Molokai and Lanai and in Hana, Skog said. Native Hawaiians make up 30 percent of the students, she added.
MEDB has trained more than 450 educators in the last 18 months, through professional development workshops that have made them proficient in science, technology, engineering and math teaching techniques, she said. They also are provided supplies and industry mentors to help them in the classroom.
The nonprofit also has created two curriculum programs with companion, hands-on interactive tools, including an iPad application, she said. One program integrates science, technology, engineering and math learning into community service and another, "Island Energy Inquiry," stems from the surge of interest in alternative clean energy in Hawaii, providing a foundation for a future green workforce in the future, Skog said.
One of MEDB's most visible programs is its Ke Alahele Education Fund, which supports student opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In August, MEDB raised a record $240,000 in its annual fundraiser for the program. The nonprofit also supports robotics programs in schools and sponsors events like Tech Careers tours at the research and technology park.
MEDB also sponsors the annual Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference, which last year drew 650 participants to Maui to participate in what's been called the premier conference on space surveillance.
In 2003, MEDB led a planning process called Focus Maui Nui that Skog said reached 1,700 residents through 167 sessions countywide. Now Focus Maui Nui "is the foundation for the update of the county's General Plan," she said. "It continues to give voice to the value-based, balanced decision-making that has been the channel for highlighting today's community issues," she said.
The nonprofit also supports existing and new businesses in Maui County, she said.
"When we meet with a business seeking our help, we determine their specific needs and interests and then tailor our assistance accordingly," Skog said. "Every business is different. They come to us with different needs. This one-on-one assistance that taps into the network of support we can offer is core to our work. One business may benefit from an introduction to a potential partner, contact with a funder, statistics to aid their decision-making, publicity or recruiting workforce."
Tom Reed, president of Aloha Glass Recycling Inc. and an MEDB board member, said that the nonprofit started small but has progressed steadily over the years, and starting the research and technology park was a "major factor in promoting growth."
"MEDB is the premier high-technology business advocate on Maui," he said. It "has provided the platform for entrepreneurs to establish businesses, grow and prosper."
Vaughn Vasconcellos, owner of Akimeka LLC, a federal contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense in the area of software applications for military medicine, said that his company was assisted by MEDB in establishing its presence on Maui in 2001.
"The companies located in the Maui Research & Technology Park represent an excellent cross-section of small and large businesses focused on high-technology development," he said. "MEDB has been at the forefront helping the MRTP grow, from incubation stage with startups to mature programs such as the Joint Information Technology Center and the Maui High Performance Computing Center."
MEDB employs 24 people and its annual budget varies, depending on the projects undertaken each year, Skog said. But, in fiscal 2012, its budget amounts to $3.66 million. Its funding comes from federal, state, county and private sources.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye became involved with MEDB in 1989 and has helped bring the agency more than $10 million in funding over the years, she said.
To contact MEDB, call 875-2300 or go online to www.medb.org.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.