Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

The Great 2009-2010 Hawaii Brain Drain

brain drain

At recent developer events, including today's UX Design Meetup, the effect of the great 2009-2010 Hawaii brain drain was readily apparent. Seth Ladd, Anthony Eden, Sam Joseph, Truman Leung, Ken Mayer, David Neely, Sherwin Gao, Seri Lee, Gabe Morris, Alex Salkever, Laurence Lee, Ken Berkun...this is just a handful of quality people I know personally. The list of talented tech industry people who have left or will soon be leaving over this very short period of time is truly depressing. Hawaii has experienced a series of brain drains over the past two decades, the most recent being in 2003/2004, but this is the worst I've seen by a long shot.

As Hawaii tech companies (largely 221 funded) collapse, the engineers and designers who were working for them aren't looking locally for new jobs. They are leaving our state, and it won't be easy to get them back. If we can't retain talented developers and creative personalities in our state the innovation economy is in serious trouble (not that this is news to anyone in the industry.) Any tech business owner who has recruited from the mainland or internationally knows its hard to relocate people to Hawaii. Many people view Hawaii as a vacation spot, but not a serious place for technology innovation. Employers have a hard time with questions such as, "I have three children. How is the public school system?" or "Will I be able to afford a house?" For younger professionals from the Bay Area or East Coast who don't have connections to Hawaii it can be hard to settle socially. Many relocations, which can be very expensive, fail in the first year.

I'm an optimistic person by nature. I believe we can still build an innovation economy in Hawaii, but we need to learn from our mistakes, identify our strengths, apply a healthy dose of pragmatism and a whole lot of elbow grease. Aside from fixing our horribly broken public education system, there isn't a lot the government can do to solve this problem for us. Its up to entrepreneurs and tech business leaders to come up with a plan for sustainable growth of a uniquely Hawaiian innovation economy.

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Comment by Ken Berkun on February 14, 2011 at 4:09pm

We are not alone and every state has it's own issues, this article may be of interest:


Posted: 13 Feb 2011 09:01 PM PST

Jillian Berman wrote:

If Ashley Hartmann had her way, the junior at the University of Michigan would leave the state after getting her degree.

“The job opportunities are horrendous in comparison to the rest of the nation,” Hartmann, a chemistry major, said at the MPowered Entrepreneurship career fair in the school’s student union last week.

Michigan has struggled to staunch the exodus of local talent. The state lags behind its neighbors in the percentage of college educated workers it retains, according to a 2008 report from Michigan Future Inc. – a non-profit organization that aims to push for a knowledge-based economy in the state.

The study, called “Young Talent in the Great Lakes: How Michigan is Faring,” found that 11.2 percent of Michigan households are young professionals compared to 16.6 percent and 15.6 percent in nearby Illinois and Minnesota respectively.


Comment by Johnson Choi on January 17, 2011 at 2:56pm
My reply to Michael Levine of the Civil Beat this morning, thought to share it with you
Jan 17 2011 9:06am
Michael - about joining the Civil Beat, I have known of the Civil Beat before it was launched.

The question is who will join in the discussions.

If we have discussion with people with good knowledge, well informed, with the power and money to effective change, I am all for it. UNFORTUNATELY THIS IS NOT THE CASE IN HAWAII. I respectfully believe since we lack all of the above, it will be a waste of time.

If discussion "alone" shall work and the people in power listen, more than 200,000 of Hawaii's brightest and smartest would NOT leave Hawaii during the past 2 decades. The hollowing out of Hawaii's human capital is what killing our State.

When I visited with the CEO of Synopsys Mr. Chi-Foon Chan at the Palo Alto on 6-13-2000. They do the programming for the Intel Chips. Synopsys has 2,600 employees. Mr. Chan told us that the asset of his Company is their 2,600 employees, and not their plants and equipments. He followed up to say, if his 2,600 employees decided not to come back to work tomorrow, his company will be finished.

Use the above as any example, imagine the best 40% of his employees left for his competitors, only those with the worst performances will return, how long do you think his company will and continue to be able to compete? Sound like the Hawaii we are facing today?

Most of the discussion and forums like the one conducted by UH last week is for show only. I have been to most of it during the past 2 decades. It is almost like the political rally or a high profile speaker for a sales organization. The time people leave is the show ends.

When you have a chance, please kick back, relax and listen to the following video presentation by the Asia Society., There are many more videos there. They are all very good.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on January 16, 2011 at 10:31am
@Boris Thank you for posting Michael's Civil Beat article. I agree with most of what Johnson wrote below. Saying we don't have a brain drain because we have enough people with high school or even bachelor's degrees is indicative of either flawed logic or differing definitions. We all know plenty of people who managed to graduate without being able to put a coherent sentence together. They aren't contributing to Hawaii's brain trust. When people talk about a brain drain they are generally referring to the types of engineers and scientists who make companies globally competitive. The census is useless in tracking this problem. You know how you know if Hawaii has a shortage? You try to hire them. If you and every other company you know is having trouble finding them, you have a shortage.
Comment by Johnson Choi on January 16, 2011 at 4:11am
To: "Michael Levine" <>, 
Michael "Your Brian Drain" article looks more like a paid PR piece by the Government and UH Foundation than dealing with the reality and challenges Hawaii is facing.

A bachelor degree today is a minimum requirement for almost all jobs paying more than the minimum wages.

In Hawaii, since most employers know the smartest and most educated with advance degree(s) will not be satisfied with the deeply discounted job market here and left (except for a tiny percentage of the so call elite, those that are politically connected or with the old money). Those with advance degree(s), many for whatever reasons stay in Hawaii are competing for the same job with less pay, up to 60% less than comparable job offered in California. Most employer will therefore pay less for people with advance degrees.

For a State with practically NO natural resources except may be solar energy, our only resources is the people, smart and educated people with vision.

If you are to travel to Palo Alto or San Jose, you will find dozens of  the best, brightest and smartest people continue to leave Hawaii on a monthly basis.

I do not know if you have been to places like Singapore and Hong Kong. In the 1970s Singapore, Hong Kong and Hawaii are comparable to each others with no natural resources. Singapore and Hong Kong have put their emphasis on its people with clean government supporting businesses.

Fast forward 30 years later, both Hong Kong and Singapore have bypassed Hawaii by leaps and bounds.

If you are to compare the financial health of Hong Kong and Hawaii, we are running 100s of millions in deficit while Hong Kong has more than US$230 billion sitting in the bank as reserve.

There are 8 universities in Hong Kong supporting high tech, tourism, business and education.

If we are to use tourism as an example, Hong Kong put a lot of resources in supporting one of its largest industry with 36 million visitors in 2010. It is supporting professional tourism schools at Hong Kong Polytech, City University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University. When you compare that to the vision of our own State University in Hawaii, the UH, current leadership have attempted and continue to attempt to terminate the School of the Travel Industry Management (TIM) by using the "ploy to merge it into the College of Business". TIM School has the best reputable throughout Asia within the UH System. When our own State University will not and cannot support the largest industry in Hawaii. We know we are in deep trouble.

If and when you travel to Hong Kong, I would like to arrange an interview with Mr. Frederick Ma It is people like him that make places like Hong Kong shine and he will give you a lot of insights.

While we are located in the middle of the Pacific, how many public and private sector leaders including our elected officials really know Asia besides Japan. Do we really know where the competitions are coming from and who are we competing against?


I have seen and hear forums in Hawaii as recently as last week lacking the world view. It really work for Hawaii since the best known place to us is Las Vegas when we take 500,000 trip there and drop more than 1 billion into its economy. We have seems to forgotten those forum need to have a world prospective when most of the competitions are coming from. We simply cannot close our doors and said "We are the best and ignore the rest".
Comment by Boris Ning on January 15, 2011 at 10:00pm
The Honolulu Civil Beat published an article two weeks ago about about the brain dump/drain.
Their research (based on the official publishing of the census) seems to point to the fact that Hawaii will be fine since enough educated people are flooding into Hawaii.

I'm skeptical in trying to believe that just because people with high school diplomas or /bachelors/masters are coming to Hawaii, the brain dump/drain problem is solved. Everybody has a bachelor's degree these days.
While that seems like to be to only way to measure brain dump, I personally think it's wrong.

Also, the civil beat forum has a discussion of some of the issues we have discussed here...
(Turn to page 1 for the main chunk of the discussion)

According to a certain cost of living index in 2010 from one of the commentators, Hawaii's cost of living is roughly 65% higher than the rest of the United States. That sounds fairly reasonable to me.
Here's the data sheet that was provided that measures groceries, health, transportation, utilities, housing... etc
Comment by Daniel Leuck on December 29, 2010 at 11:33pm
@Boris - Very interesting. That article is eerily familiar.
Comment by Boris Ning on December 29, 2010 at 9:24pm

I'm waiting for the official publication of the recent census.


A decade ago, the Star-Bulletin covered the brain dump story based on the 1999-2000 census.

Comment by Ken Berkun on December 14, 2010 at 8:49pm

Posting this here, just in case you missed it:

Here's how Hawaii loses to Fargo, N.D.



Comment by Johnson Choi on October 7, 2010 at 12:45pm
One of my fellow UH alumni is doing a lot of Apple I-Phone Apps in Hong Kong. In Asia i.e. Hong Kong, almost all major banks (65 of the top 100 largest banks in the world are in HK), soccer team and etc....are doing Apps for the smart phone. He is doing so well that his company will probably go IPO next year in Hong Kong.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on October 7, 2010 at 12:18pm
@Johnson - We have a Doing Business in Hawaii forum that was setup for this very purpose.

@Kevin - We appreciate the business.

There are people in Hawaii doing mobile development full time. John Wang is a full time mobile developer. We have two other developers doing mobile dev as part of their work and open positions. UH is doing mobile development, the health care providers are doing mobile development and companies like Oceanit have released apps.


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