Hawaiʻi Telescopes Employ Hundreds, Critics Say Astronomy Not Big Island Jobs Solution

Aug 12, 2019

The standoff on Mauna Kea enters week five Monday as protesters continue to block the summit road to prevent construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope. TMT supporters say if the telescope isn’t built, that could jeopardize employment opportunities for islands residents.

Hawaiʻi astronomer Doug Simons has driven up Mauna Kea Access Road more times than he can count over the course of his nearly 30-year career. Normally, on any given day, as many as 70 employees like Simons make their way up the mountain.

“So I'd say two-thirds technicians and one-third engineers,” says Simons.

Simons is the executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope. He estimates 600 to 700 people work across all Maunakea Observatories, mostly at the base facilities in Hilo and Waimea. Surprisingly astronomers like himself make up a small fraction of the workforce.

“Believe it or not, 15 percent is all,” says Simons, “We are an endangered species in modern observatories.”

Hawaiʻi has one of the largest astronomy sectors in the country, with nearly 1,400 jobs statewide, according to a 2014 report by University of Hawaiʻ’s Economic Research Organization. These are good paying, high-skilled jobs, too, says UH economics professor Carl Bonham.

“The average salary of an astronomer is in the $100,000 range,” says Bonham. “All the support jobs are well-paid, whether it’s a technician or mathematician, an IT person.”

Bonham says these high-salaried workers, in turn, create demand for what he calls spillover jobs.

“Whether it’s someone who’s going to mow their yard while they’re, you know, up in the telescope or someone who is going to work on their car,” says Bonham. “The spillovers go all the way down to every level of the Hawaiʻi economy.”

TMT says the project will create 300 temporary construction jobs and another 140 permanent positions once the telescope is operational. But Kealoha Pisciotta, who spent 10 years working on Mauna Kea’s James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, says the promise of jobs is not in evidence.

“If that was the case, weʻve had astronomy on Mauna Kea since 1968,” says Pisciotta. “I donʻt see that they have become our solution to the job crisis.”

Pisciotta is one of the leaders of a group calling themselves kiaʻi or protectors of Mauna Kea. She says if the state wants to create jobs, it should enforce the law requiring fair market rent on existing telescopes, instead of collecting $1 a year.

“That would allow many jobs where we start hiring people to restore the environment, take care of Mauna Kea,” says Pisciotta, “rather than jobs based on destruction. How’s about jobs based on building ʻāina momona? Making the land abudant and fruitful.”

Astronomy in Hawai’i generated more than $50 million a year in earnings, according to the 2014 UH report. But hiring qualified residents remains a challenge, says Simons, whose focus is workforce development. A 2007 UH survey found only 18 percent of the observatories’ staff on Hawaiʻi Island were born on the island.

UHERO Report on the Economic Impact of Astronomy in Hawaiʻi, 2014