April 17, 2024

Empowering Futures:
CNMI's Innovative Approaches to Workforce Development

By: Florie Mendiola
This year’s CNMI PSS-CTE Certified Nursing Assistant Program participants pose for a photo at the Guam Marianas Training Center in Chalan Laulau on Middle Road.
Photo Credit: MV Emmanuel Erediano

Nestled in the Micronesian region of the Pacific Ocean lies an archipelago of 14 islands known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). With its pristine natural beauty and its people as its greatest resource, the CNMI continues to grapple with a fragile economic state amid various challenges. Its remote location exacerbates limited access to essential resources, compounded by a small population of 54,000 and the lingering effects of natural disasters, such as super typhoons. Furthermore, the heavy reliance on the tourism and hospitality sector, still reeling from the impacts of COVID-19, underscores an urgent need to develop a skilled and adaptable workforce that is critical for rebuilding and sustainable growth for the island nation.


For decades, the CNMI heavily relied on foreign workers, known as Commonwealth Workers, to fill the gaps in skilled labor across both public and private sectors. However, with federal oversight of CNMI immigration commencing in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security implemented a foreign worker permit program, resulting in a 73% decline in foreign worker numbers from 2001–2020. To address this challenge, the CNMI adopted innovative approaches to retain a skilled workforce, including identifying individuals eligible for permanent residence (LPRs), maintaining a balanced mix of up to 50% foreign and U.S. workers from 2016–2020. However, with the impending end of the foreign worker (CW-1) program in 2029, the CNMI faces a significant gap in its workforce.


Addressing this impending challenge, the CNMI’s 2020–2023 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) plan outlines strategies to invest in and empower a local workforce capable of meeting the demands of existing industries while remaining flexible to accommodate emerging sectors, such as the casino industry and increased U.S. military engagement. This blog explores the approaches, policies, and resources that the CNMI has embraced to foster workforce development and provide education pathways to college and/or career opportunities.

Education Pathways to College and Career Success

Understanding that a well-educated and skilled population is the foundation of economic development, the CNMI has implemented policies aimed at strengthening its education system. Central to this effort is the promotion of career pathway programs aligned with the specific needs of CNMI’s industries, ensuring that education serves as a conduit for building the island’s workforce. Collaborations between educational institutions and local businesses led to the creation of tailored career pathways in the K–12 system through college and career pipelines. High school students can enroll in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs that provide them with the opportunity to earn credits and certifications, gain work experience, career planning assistance, and income through paid internships.


In 2023, CNMI PSS in collaboration with the Region 18 Comprehensive Center (R18CC) finalized and published a Profile of a CNMI PSS Graduate, five career pathway curriculum guides (Nursing Assistant, Construction Trades, Hospitality & Tourism, Education & Teaching, and Entrepreneurship); a Career Pathways Implementation Guide; and a Professional Development and Evaluation Plan Guide to strengthen CNMI’s CTE programming. Detail on this collaboration as well as resulting publications can be accessed here.

Recognizing the importance of higher education, the CNMI has invested in initiatives to increase access for its residents. Scholarships, grants, and financial aid programs were established to make college education more affordable and accessible, enabling CNMI residents to pursue advanced degrees and certificates in various trades and contribute to the islands’ development. In 2022, the CNMI Scholarship office and Northern Marianas College (NMC) awarded scholarships and financial aid to nearly 3,000 students to access a college education. Additionally, NMC recently secured a USDA grant aimed at designing a workforce development program in Agrotourism and providing scholarships and financial aid to students pursuing undergraduate degrees in the food, agriculture, and science fields.


The CNMI WIOA State Plan emphasizes the importance of providing residents with skills that directly translate into employment opportunities. The CNMI Community Development Institute (CDI) at NMC offers an array of workforce development and certification training programs, accessible both in person and online. Through these programs, residents can acquire and update their skills, enhancing their employability in the workforce. Last year, the Department of Labor hosted the largest job fair ever, attracting over 758 attendees and 42 businesses to support workers seeking employment.

Job-Driven Training for a Skilled Workforce

At the heart of CNMI’s workforce development strategy is a commitment to job-driven training, aligning education with the demands of the local labor market. The CNMI has proactively expanded its CTE programs making them accessible beyond high school and college students. These programs offer hands-on experience, technical skills, and industry certifications. By collaborating with local industries, CTE initiatives bridge the gap between education and the workforce, preparing residents for diverse career paths. The Northern Marianas Technical Institute provides hands-on learning and training in the technical and trades fields in construction, automotive, culinary, and hospitality, and expected growth industries such as maritime, cosmetology, solar energy, and aviation.


Furthermore, inspired by successful initiatives, e.g., Guam Registered Apprenticeship Program (GRAP), the CNMI launched apprenticeship programs that bring together educational institutions, employers, and the government as mechanisms for on-the-job training. As the CNMI expands towards new revenue sources, the demand for a qualified and skilled workforce in emerging industries such as cybersecurity, agriculture, mariculture, marijuana and hemp production, as well as essential sectors like water production, food security, healthcare, and education, will continue to grow.


The Proposed 2024–2027 CNMI WIOA presented an examination of the labor force’s assets, which revealed a consistent trend in job openings. The most sought-after occupations were construction and extraction, installation, maintenance, and repair, building and grounds cleaning and maintenance, food preparation and serving related occupations, and personal care and service. This alignment underscores the symbiotic relationship between the education/training needed to develop a labor force ready to fulfill industry demands. Additionally, the analysis reports that ages 35–54 makes up the largest age group in the labor force (54%), which should include education/training considerations for nontraditional adult students, reskilling and upskilling to prepare this segment of the workforce to meet the standards of emerging industries in order to remain competitive and employable.

Collaborative Partnerships and Responsive Governance

The CNMI government implemented progressive workforce development policies tailored to the islands’ unique challenges and opportunities. These include incentives for businesses to invest in employee training, initiatives supporting local entrepreneurship, and strategies to attract industries that align with the CNMI’s strengths. In the CNMI WIOA State Plan, collaboration among stakeholders is an essential component of the CNMI’s approach and aligned to the indigenous values of Reciprocity and Ina’fa Maolek, which underscores that everyone needs to do their part and work together to make things better for all. The establishment of local workforce development boards serves as a mechanism for facilitating dialogue and action, bringing together key stakeholders to identify workforce needs and design responsive programs. This collaborative approach ensures that policies and programs remain adaptable and directly responsive to the diverse needs of CNMI’s economy.


By fortifying education pathways, prioritizing job-driven training, collaborative partnerships, and innovative approaches to diversifying industries, the CNMI is charting a course toward a prosperous and sustainable future. The CNMI is cultivating a workforce equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary for success in both college and careers. Through these strategic approaches, the CNMI is not merely building a skilled workforce; it is nurturing a resilient, empowered, and thriving community.

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