“Brain Drain” – An Exodus of Kānaka Moving to the Continent


Young kānaka are opting to move away from Hawaiʻi to chase their careers and save money, leaving the future of the islands uncertain.

Photo: Josiah Factora

“It’s easier to make a living for yourself here on the mainland than back home in Hawaiʻi,” said 25-year-old Josiah Factora. The Hilo native now resides in Marysville, Wash.

He’s one of many “young, educated workers” from Hawaiʻi who are relocating (predominantly) to the western U.S. – California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado – as well as to the American South, including Texas, Florida, Georgia and Virginia. This trend has been dubbed “brain drain,” according to Hawaiʻi’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.

“Once I got to high school, I already knew I wanted to get off the islands,” Factora said, pointing to a lack of opportunities in Hawaiʻi. After receiving a scholarship to play baseball, he moved to Tacoma, Wash.

He returned to Hilo with his girlfriend for a few years but, faced with the high cost of living and low wages, the couple eventually moved back to the continent.

Factora admits that rent in the Seattle area is getting more expensive, but “it’s not nearly as bad as back home,” he added. He has since secured a good-paying HVAC job despite having no prior experience.

Factora says his biggest sacrifice for relocating to the continent is “being away from my parents and my siblings,” but recently several of his friends have made the same decision to move away from Hawaiʻi.

One day, he plans to return. “Home will always be home,” Factora said. “You can always go back.”

The most significant factors influencing decisions to move include new jobs and job transfers, along with family and housing reasons, reports Hawaiʻi’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism. But young Hawaiians living on the continent also take advantage of higher pay and “significantly cheaper” housing costs.

In the Honolulu area, overall costs rose about 5% higher in January than the year prior, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The cost of food jumped around 6%, gasoline gained by about 16%, and energy surged by almost 21%.

And over the past decade, the price of housing has steadily swelled year over year, especially in urban Hawaiʻi.

The median household income for the U.S. sits at almost $70,000, but Hawaiʻi’s is even higher at about $85,000, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. Still, about 11% of Hawaiʻi residents live in poverty, with those under the age of 18 impacted at the highest rate at almost 14%.

But for some Hawaiʻi natives, it doesn’t come down to money. The lifestyle change is attractive, too.

Kaylen Cabatu Gapusan, 24, is planning a move to Las Vegas, Nev., from Hilo in June. He’s owned a car detailing business for about four years and wants to expand to the continent “and just try new things.”

Gapusan described himself as both nervous and excited at the prospect. “Once I move, it’ll be like starting from scratch all over again,” he said.

He considers Hawaiʻi laidback, but “so limited.” Gapusan is looking forward to new adventures, like exploring California “and not having to spend over $1,000 just to get there,” he said.

He admits that he won’t be able to see his family as often, although his mom already resides on the continent. Still, Gapusan hopes this move will be long-term.

“A part of me wishes I grew up on the mainland, just because there’s a lot more to do. But, at the same time, home is always home,” he said. “Eventually, I wouldn’t mind coming back home to raise a family.”

For almost three decades, 66-year-old Cyndi Pa has called Washington State home after leaving Hawaiʻi. When she first moved, she didn’t know any other islanders who had done the same.

Pa originally came to the continent for love, but stayed to grow her store – Colors of Hawaiʻi Gifts and Treasures, a Hawaiʻi specialty store in located the city of Everett – even as others doubted her.

“Now, it’s 10 and a half years, and I’ve still got my business,” she said. “It was meant to be for me to come up here.”

Pa says the islands are “too expensive.” She encourages other Hawaiians to relocate to the continent, although she sympathizes with the difficulties in making that decision.

“Everybody wants to take over our islands,” she said. “Well, let’s take over the mainland.”