Sunday, November 23, 2008

Trade institute is racing against time

Monday, 24 November 2008 00:00 By Emmanuel T. Erediano - Variety News Staff

The newly established Northern Marianas Trades Institute has five years to produce a considerable number of skilled local residents to replace their nonresident counterparts who will be gone by Dec. 2014 as a result of the federalized immigration system that will take effect next year.

NMTI opened on July 15 to train local residents for jobs that are usually filled by guest workers who are willing to accept low wages.

Anthony Pellegrino, who owns a number of businesses on Saipan, said in an interview on Friday that even before the federalization law was enacted, he realized that the CNMI will have five and a half years to build an adequate local work force to replace the guest workers.

The Fitial administration believes that the federalization law will reduce to zero by Dec. 31, 2014 the number of nonresident workers who currently make up 80 percent of the CNMI’s total workforce in the private sector.

Most locals work for the public sector which pays much more than the private companies.

Pellegrino said as an investor who wants to continue doing business on Saipan, he had to think of plan that could at least mitigate the effect of federalization five years from now.

Human capital

Pellegrino said he established the trade institute because he believes the strength of any community lies in the trade skills of its populace.

His start-up money was $60,000 to $70,000 but the real investment here, he said, is motivation.

If a community’s natural resources are used up, the people will be poor forever, he said. But if people are educated, trained and skilled, a country can always become great, Pellegrino added, citing Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan as examples.

“They invested in their people. I call it human capital. The more educated and more skillful the people are the stronger we can become,” Pellegrino said.

In the case of the CNMI, Pellegrino said local residents will be left to continue running the economy under a federalized immigration and labor system.

Educating people in trades, he said, is a sustainable way to keep the CNMI economy growing.

“I strongly feel that if the CNMI trains its human resources it can become one of the finest jurisdictions in the entire Pacific area, but over the years, the local people have been discouraged from learning any trade. They have been elbowed out of the market place because of the abundant supply of inexpensive or low-waged workers,” he said.

Head start

Three weeks ago, 26 local students completed the three-month pre-requisite course at the institute.

They now have to choose any of NMTI’s trade courses —carpentry and painting, plumbing, electronics, sewing, cosmetics, hair styling and culinary arts.

Today, these students, will start to learn “hands-on,” Pellegrino said.

He said there is a great sense of pride and accomplishment among the local students.

Pellegrino is confident that NMTI will be able to produce skilled local residents before the last group guest workers leave the islands.

The only question is, would the number of skilled locals be enough to cover all the jobs that will be left vacant?

Pellegrino said 110 more local residents have enrolled.

The new enrollees, he said, are young men and women, 17 to 35 years old.

Most are jobless and do not have the same skills as guest workers have.

Unfinished job

Pellegrino recalls that when he opened the institute, there was not a trade school in place.

Northern Marianas College used to offer vocational training, but despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on the program, the enrollment and graduation rates for local residents were “appallingly low,” according to a government official.

The then-NMC officials said locals would have no motivation to learn trade skills if CNMI wages remained low.

Public Law 5-4 mandates that the portion of the guest workers’ application and renewal fees will fund NMC’s apprenticeship, vocational and trade training programs.

Public Law 6-4, or the NMC Vocational Education Program Act of 1988, established the college’s apprenticeship vocational management training program in secretarial science, bookkeeping and construction trades.

This program was supposed to be funded by fees collected from businesses that hired nonresident workers.

The programs had to be discontinued due to lack of students.

Some of the equipment like an electronic panel, woodwork tables and tools have not been used for years and are rusting already.

No future competition

The federalization law will fund a CNMI vocational school to train local residents for guest worker job.

Pellegrino said that if the local government establishes such school he will not compete with it.

He is willing to close NMTI once the federally required vocational school is established.

“I will be grateful if somebody will continue this for me,” he said, adding that he established NMTI just to show what the commonwealth can do to help itself.

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