TMT ‘workforce pipeline program’ in works


Can the Big Island capitalize on the construction of one of the world’s largest telescopes atop Mauna Kea?

That’s the question a local workforce group is trying to answer.

Representatives from Big Island businesses, Hawaii Community College, University of Hawaii at Hilo and the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations are working in conjunction with Thirty Meter Telescope project managers to establish a “workforce pipeline program” that would, in theory, create a pathway for island residents and students interested in pursuing tech and observatory-related jobs.

Sandra Dawson, TMT spokesperson, said the consortium has high hopes the $1.3 billion project will influence the Big Island’s economy in the same way the implementation of a telescope effected the desert town of Tucson, Ariz.

“Theirs was copper; ours was sugar. When copper started dying, they needed something new,” Dawson said. “About that time, the National Science Foundation funded a telescope. That telescope is smaller than four of the telescopes we have on Mauna Kea. The people of the town saw an advantage to this. They started bringing experts in optics in and now they’re the world center for optics. The university and government thought about this as a way to move forward.

“We’re thinking that we have telescopes, more than they do in Tucson, and we are looking on how we would develop a high-tech industry around the observatories,” she said.

Several ideas are already in the works, including a new UH-Hilo engineering program Jerry Chang, director of university relations at UH-Hilo, said would develop a labor pool for projects such as TMT.

“Instead of hiring people out of state, let’s use our local workforce,” he said.

But first the island needs that workforce, which is why Dwight Takamine, director of DLIR, created the workforce group to ensure there’s enough local manpower available to accommodate the jobs needed for TMT.

Other ideas for workforce development were presented in a PowerPoint presentation to the Hawaii Island Legislative Delegation on Jan. 13. Some goals include “new and enhanced” HCC technology programs, observatory-related internships for Hawaii students and “incentives to attract new astronomy-related industry.”

One potential area would be for instrument development and operational support. Currently, all contracts for those jobs go overseas and cost $30 million to $40 million annually.

Also referenced in the PowerPoint were multiple surveys that showed a majority of observatory-related jobs in the past went overseas. In 2007, the Hawaii Island Observatory Survey found 40 percent of tech and administration positions went to overseas locations, and 86 percent of people hired were not born and not raised on Hawaii Island.

Construction of TMT is slated for April or May this year, despite being in the middle of a legal battle. A group of six petitioners is seeking to overturn the state’s decision to grant a conservation district land use permit for the TMT project. Both parties entered their final briefs Jan. 21 in Hilo 3rd Circuit Court and are awaiting Judge Greg Nakamura’s ruling.

With no injunction on the case, however, construction may continue.

The California-based TMT project formed in 2003 and is supported by observatories and universities from Canada, Japan, China, India and the United States. The telescope is projected to begin operations in 2022, and was anticipated to be the world’s largest telescope made up of a primary mirror that would be approximately 30 meters long with 492 individual segments.

TMT is developing the workforce pipeline program in partnership with UH-Hilo, HCCC, Department of Education and Hawaii County.

Email Megan Moseley at mmoseley@hawaiitribune-herald.com.