Everyone wants to move to Hawaii. At least, that's what these "passionate" candidates say when they apply for jobs. Sure, they might not have the right skills or background experience, but they will drop everything and move... so hire them!

I recently spoke with a corporate recruiter friend of mine who is based in Honolulu, Oahu because I'm fascinated by the unique challenges she’s up against, specifically in terms of relocation. Joanna Babbitt, who wishes to keep her employer anonymous, obliged me by participating in a Q&A. Along the way, I learned a bit more about working in Hawaii – things that ever-so-slightly corrupt my image of a perfect tropical paradise and give me a window into her 9-to-5.

Kinzy:  How often do you recruit people from the mainland?

Joanna:  Not often. We post all positions nationally, but only rarely and for very specialized positions do we provide relocation. When candidates are already planning to move here, or return to the island after living on the mainland for a few years, it makes things much easier. A rough percentage might be 1 in 25 hires.

Kinzy:  When I visited Hawaii, it seemed like there were a lot of Californians living there, including yourself! Have you found that some mainlanders are more willing to relocate than others (Californians, perhaps?)

Joanna:  Actually, mainlanders with extreme weather are often the most interested in relocation! 

After the severe winter in 2013, we received a lot of Midwest and East Coast applications and were able to bring a few over here. 

Mainlanders who have relocated before, or who relocate often, are also more interested in moving out here.

Kinzy:  When you’re recruiting someone from the mainland, do you ever need to “sell” Hawaii as a place to live?

Joanna:  Many people are already interested in the idea of Hawaii, and we are trying to bring that image down to Earth. For example, they apply with language like “a dream come true” and “have always wanted to live in Paradise.” We spend the majority of the time talking about the downsides, rather than selling the positives! We try to emphasize that while wonderful, it is a very different lifestyle that just is not for everyone. Past experience has shown that even the most ardent and enthusiastic move back to the mainland within a year. This has made managers skittish about bringing people over based on their “passion” for Hawaii, and we try to learn more about the motivation for relocating.If anything turns folks off, it’s the salary (which is consistently lower than mainland salaries) and the distance from family. We try to be upfront about these drawbacks when communicating with candidates.

Kinzy:  Do you think you have a harder or easier job than mainland recruiters? In what ways?

Joanna:  In many ways, it does seem like we have additional challenges. Most significantly, we have a smaller candidate pool. There is a lot of talent in Hawaii, but it’s a small population. Our postings are usually flooded with applicants from across the country with no real intent to relocate. We often have to wade through these to find the people who are really interested in the job, locally and from the mainland. For some of our neighbor islands, this challenge is magnified—much smaller populations, and most of the talent is clustered on Oahu. Another challenge is that even if we’ve found the perfect candidate, we may not be able to afford them—they are either used to a 30% to 40% higher salary on the mainland, or they’re entertaining competing offers from other local companies and inflating their salary. This can be especially heartbreaking because it’s such a tough cycle to break. But of course, we do have an incredible allure, and for the right candidate, that’s all that they need. We do have some amazing people out here, who have come from the mainland or grew up here or on a neighbor island, and there is an incredible amount of diversity here...We never have to beg for applications—our big challenge is sorting through the wealth of people eager to follow their career path in Hawaii.

Kinzy:  Do you think candidates ever make misguided decisions (or overlook certain aspects of the job) because of their desire to live in Hawaii? If so, how do you work through this?

Joanna:  Absolutely. This happens often… Sometimes these are highly educated candidates with a great deal of experience, and they are applying to entry level positions. Or they are recent grads—one that I remember, who wrote an impassioned cover letter about his dream of moving to Hawaii—was applying to a very senior compliance manager role, and his past experience had been as a busboy at a chain restaurant. So often we receive these applications with the message that any job will be okay, as long as it is in Hawaii, and they spend all their real estate describing how thin their attachments are to their residence, how little commitments they have, how easy and flexible they are when it comes down to it—and they are focusing on this much more than on the job or on demonstrating how qualified they are for it. 

Imagine applying to a job on the mainland by telling the recruiter that you love Cleveland and you love the suburbs so much, and you have a month to month lease so you really can be there at any moment!

I think candidates often overlook everything about the job, and they overlook that it’s still something they need to be able to live with doing every day.

It happens often with people who are qualified, too—with people we hire. Many of them agree to a salary cut (despite the high cost of living in Hawaii) because that’s the going rate here and that is what they must do to work here. No one wants to be driven by money, and tell themselves they will be happier with less. And some are! But for many, it’s just too much of a lifestyle change.

We’ve also had families divided by one person moving to Hawaii, with the expectation that the rest of the family will follow after everything has been settled. Months go by, the timing isn’t right to pull the kids out of school, it’s the holidays, and so on—suddenly they are living in two different states and an ocean apart, and that isn’t sustainable. We work through it differently with each individual, but often there isn’t anything to be done. It’s important to lay the ground work before the offer has been made. I think people also forget that there are major cultural differences on the island, and that even if everything aligns with the salary, some people just aren’t happy here. I think the realization is very disappointing—to have the dream job in Hawaii, surf every day, always on vacation—and when that doesn’t quite live up to be everything you ever wanted, it’s very bitter! “If I can’t be happy in Hawaii, what’s wrong with me!” kind of thinking. For many people it’s just such a fantasy, but reality sets in and you still need to go to work and you still need to eat, to get along with your neighbors, wash the dishes, and pay the bills.There is a much more laidback work style for many Hawaiians, and sales and business are conducted at a different pace.