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Hawaii group lures remote workers amid pandemic downturn

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The sun rises over a group of palm trees along the sea in Hawaii.

Hawaii's tourism industry has been ravaged by the pandemic, but the crisis may end up bringing workers from a wide range of industries into the state. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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While telecommuting means home offices and kitchen tables for many, some newly remote workers are using their newfound job flexibility to relocate.

Jonathan Meyers co-founded the cloud consulting firm DoneOps and has been working remotely all over the world for several years, including cities across North America, Europe and Asia.

He came to Hawaii in early 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions made living abroad unfeasible.

Meyers said so-called digital nomads look for a few essentials when choosing a location: reliable internet access first among them, but also a population of other remote workers to befriend and opportunities for recreation.

Hawaii does well by those metrics, according to Meyers. Though there’s one notable issue.

“It’s kind of expensive compared to other locations with similar weather,” he said, citing Bali and Thailand as two cheaper alternatives.

Some Hawaii business leaders see the rise of remote work during the pandemic as a new economic opportunity, one that can attract young talent and help the island state diversify away from pandemic-racked industries like tourism.

Nearly one-quarter of U.S. workers did at least some part of their job remotely in January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state government, however, is not currently collecting data on how many people have moved to Hawaii for remote work during the pandemic.

group of business leaders recently launched a program to cover the cost of airfare for those moving to Hawaii called Movers and Shakas.

It received almost 90,000 applications for the first group of 50 workers.

The program’s director, Nicole Lim, said a major goal is to entice residents who left the state in search of better opportunities elsewhere to move back.

“Now with remote work, we don’t have to choose between being near our families or our jobs,” Lim said.

Hawaii has been losing population in recent years, a trend predicted to accelerate as a result of the pandemic.

Some entrepreneurs in Hawaii were seeking to capitalize on remote work even before the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Treehouse Coworking is a subscription-based Hawaii company that offers workers amenities like private offices, internet access and a kitchen.

In 2020, around 25 to 30% of its clients were working for a company on the mainland.  

Founder Keno Knieriem said many people want to work remotely but like some aspects of going to an office.

“The commute, the desktop computer, the office phone all allow work to stay at work and compartmentalize that piece of life,” he noted in an interview.

Knieriem, a former remote worker himself, conceived the idea for a co-working space while developing a different startup in Austin, Texas.

He said that co-working spaces will not just attract fresh talent to Hawaii’s economy but serve as incubators for the next generation of entrepreneurs.  

Currently, incentives to attract workers to Hawaii remain modest compared to programs previously offered by locations like Vermont and Tulsa, Oklahoma.  

But in a state that has relied on tourism for decades, some in Hawaii are looking at remote work as an alternative way to generate economic activity.

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