No opportunity for tech: Why Daniel Ornelas left Hawaii

I moved to Hawaii when I was 11, back in 2010. I lived on Maui for 11 years. I was so fortunate to spend the formative years of my life in such a beautiful place in a loving community full of aloha.

Growing up, however, my single mother struggled constantly to survive and find stable housing for us. The recession had hit Hawaii hard, and it was around this time that housing prices truly started to skyrocket.

I started to work construction during the summers when I was 14 to provide for my family and pay for my own private school tuition because my mother refused for her kids to go to a public school in Hawaii, as she knew the quality of education was significantly less than that of a private school.

I ended up going through periods of homelessness during my youth, and saw many other young people such as myself go through circumstances out of their control.

I ended up joining a nonprofit that taught young people leadership skills and gave them one-on-one coaching to pursue their dreams and network with those in the community. Throughout my high school years, I grew in my leadership skills, despite facing hardship at home.

Eventually I gave my own Ted Talk at Seabury Hall on Maui about overcoming a victimhood mindset. My message was to use the circumstances in your life to propel you forward as a story of your success, not the reason for your downfall. I ended up speaking at almost every school in Maui County.

It was around this time that I went to college at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, studying communications. However, even with a considerable amount of college scholarships, I found it difficult to make ends meet. On top of that, I didn’t enjoy college. I dropped out and again found myself in a place of economic hardship on Maui, even with a full-time job as a delivery driver. It was then that some of my friends took me into their home until I was able to get my finances in order.

Around this time, I wanted to jump-start a career that didn’t require a college degree. I knew that trades were a great option for me, but it wasn’t what I wanted. My girlfriend, Nicole, was in her senior year of high school and she wanted to go to college on the mainland, so I figured I would follow her, as I knew my salary as a delivery driver would take me farther in Washington state.

Immediately after moving to Washington state, my economic situation drastically improved. I was getting paid $3 more per hour doing the exact same job than I would in Hawaii, with much better conditions and more resources to complete my job.

It was around this time I started looking at various vocational schools to find a career I was passionate about. I looked at various coding boot camps (accelerated coding courses created to help those looking to rapidly break into the tech industry). However, all of the options I found were above what I could afford. Eventually I found a vocational program that gives young people ages 18-24 six months of college courses in a specialized vocational area, and a six-month internship at world renown corporate businesses completely for free. I studied business operations and was fortunate enough to be placed for internship at Microsoft, where I now work full time making a comfortable salary.

Looking back at my friends and family in Hawaii, many of them are still in the same hardship I was in just little over a year ago. In my opinion, those in charge in Hawaii are not doing enough to encourage or at least allow a diverse economy. I meet many former Hawaii residents while I network in tech, and all of them say the same about the tech industry in Hawaii — that there is a clear lack of tech jobs, and the ones that are there simply don’t pay enough for anyone like me to realistically consider moving back.

Meanwhile. in Washington there is a clear business-friendly environment that attracts the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, Tableau, Accenture, Google, Facebook and countless start-ups. Not just white-collar jobs, but blue-collar as well, with the likes of Boeing and others — all the while not experiencing a housing market as bad as, say, the Bay Area … or Hawaii.

Now, I don’t expect Hawaii to be the epicenter of the tech or aviation industry, but even a smaller slice of that pie would pave the way for residents of Hawaii to build real generational wealth without the overhead of a state university. Hawaii has made its attempts to attract tech businesses. On Maui the county built a technology park in Kihei full of possibilities and vacant lots for tech campuses. However, it seems that wasn’t enough.

Currently I have no plan to return to Hawaii unless the situation changes in terms of affordability and job opportunities. I want nothing more than to see my friends and family, but I don’t want to end up with the same trapped feeling I had on Maui. Hawaii needs leadership that is willing to bring more options to the table.

Locals in Hawaii often receive the critique that they are bad with their money, and that they’re lazy and slow. This critique is misplaced. Locals are some of the hardest-working people I’ve met. It’s just that they need the opportunity to show just how far they can go.

Without a diverse economy, you don’t have much to look forward to. Hawaii needs something worth looking forward to that doesn’t compromise the land or the people.

Daniel Ornelas
Seattle, Washington
Former resident of Wailuku, Maui

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