BY GIFF JOHNSON
Marshall Islands Correspondent
MAJURO, Marshall Islands — Pacific International Inc. — the biggest contractor in the Marshall Islands — is in an increasingly problematic situation because of its inability to bring in skilled workers for numerous construction projects.
As deadlines loom, particularly for Micronesian Games sports facilities, PII is handcuffed by two problems that relate to the Marshall Islands ongoing border controls to prevent the entry of COVID-19: It cannot bring in the skilled workers it needs for specialized work on sports facilities and the Hawaii engineering firm Pryzm Consulting cannot send engineers in to review national gymnasium construction for decisions to be made that impact next stages of the renovation.
Kenneth Kramer, operations manager at PII, said at the end of September that if the borders were open, PII would bring in 50 skilled workers for multiple projects on Majuro and Ebeye.
With borders closed for more than 18 months, many businesses are in urgent need of workers with skills that are not available locally. Many are requesting to bring workers into the country through the government-managed repatriation process, which for the past year has brought in a group of about 60 people each month through managed quarantine.
Government officials said they are looking to focus more on business needs in repatriation groups later this year after completing the repatriation of stranded citizens who had left the country for medical care or other reasons, and were caught up in the COVID border lockdown and unable to return home.
“Construction jobs are being delayed by manpower and materials,” Kramer said. He noted that PII’s suppliers are warning them of major delays in getting construction materials as orders are backing up due to Covid-related supply chain problems in the U.S. mainland and elsewhere.
A project to upgrade the Latter-Day Saints Church on Ebeye is facing a six-month delay as a result of both issues, Kramer said.
While work overall is on schedule for the two largest Micronesian Games facilities — the track and field and the national gym — there is specialized work needed for the track, for which PII is attempting to bring in two construction workers with expertise in installing the rubberized flooring/matting of the international-standard track field. The Micronesian Games are scheduled for late July 2022.
But the earliest they can arrive may be late November, a date that depends on when repatriation groups are scheduled, and on government approval of workers to be in one of these groups. Currently, the Marshall Islands requires a one-week quarantine in Honolulu followed by a two-week quarantine in government-managed facilities in either Majuro or Kwajalein, with multiple Covid tests prior to release.
Kramer said that aside from achieving completion of the track by the scheduled July date of the Games next year, PII’s aim has been to get the track finished so that local athletes preparing for the Games can be working out on the track. “The athletes need to be trained on what they’re going to compete on,” he said.
Pryzm is the Hawaii firm designated to engineering for the national gym work. The inability of its engineers to get into Marshall Islands is holding up next steps for the renovation, Kramer said. A key issue is location of conduits that must be installed prior to pouring cement. “Pryzm engineers cannot come in to check this,” he said. “It’s delayed us.”
Further complicating PII’s personnel situation, said Kramer, is that many of the company’s skilled workers have already extended their stay for up to two years and are now long overdue to return home to their families in the Philippines. Some of PII’s skilled workforce had returned home for vacations prior to the border closure in March 2020 and have been unable to return to work here. Others, who have not taken vacations for years, would like to return home and then come back to Marshall Islands to continue working — but cannot, given the challenge of entry for the foreseeable future.
“There are many requests not only from PII, but from the private sector as a whole,” said Marshall Islands Deputy Chief Secretary Abacca Anjain-Maddison in response to questions about private sector labor needs.
One of the challenges facing the government’s repatriation program is that the U.S. Army, which runs the missile testing range at Kwajalein Atoll, will be closing the Kwaj Lodge for renovation at the end of October. This will eliminate the primary facility used by the Marshall Islands since October 2020 for monthly repatriation groups numbering generally between 50 and 75.
“With the limited rooms due to the closure of Kwaj Lodge at the end of October the Repatriation Working Group is faced with many challenges,” Anjain-Maddison said. “However, we will try our best to manage to accommodate all requests including the skilled workers PII requested (in repatriation groups later this year).”
Anjain-Maddison said a group arriving in October “will consist of the last Marshallese citizens on the original stranded list. We wanted to take care of this group before we can focus on private sector essential workers including government consultants and contractors.” mbj