February 8, 2017
Editor’s note: December 12 marked the last sugar harvest in Maui and a sad day in the U.S. sugar industry. After more than a century, Hawaii will no longer produce sugar. Over the next four days, we will take a look back at what the crop meant to the islands, the incredible people who made it possible, and the cautionary tale it leaves behind for those of us on the Mainland. Thank you, Hawaiian sugar producers, for your many contributions to the U.S. sugar industry.
As sugar production in America changed and became more mechanized, the skills of Hawaii’s labor population had to change, too.
Since Hawaii is a group of islands, there wasn’t a big pool of skilled labor to choose from. But there was a strong work ethic among the plantation workers already on the islands.
Sugar companies like Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company turned inward to build the work force they needed.
HC&S had a federally recognized apprenticeship program where workers could learn new skills.
When the company identified a worker with good habits and a strong work ethic in a lower level job, it moved him into the apprenticeship program. From there, the worker could learn to be a welder, mechanic, electrician or a host of other technical positions needed to run the massive sugar operation.
HC&S was vertically integrated. It made sugar from seed to cane to finished product. That means it needed everything from field laborers and power plant operators to chemists and business office professionals.
There was literally a job for everyone.
“It’s a nice matchup. It’s a nice relationship,” said Rick Volner Jr., a general plantation manager for HC&S.
“We help train them. We pay for all that education and they provide that skill set for us,” he explained. “It created a nice stable workforce.”
It also created a workforce that knew the business inside and out and wasn’t afraid to share ideas.
When Volner became the boss, every generation in his family, except for his parents, had worked on the plantation.
A lot of people knew him and his family and they were not shy about telling him how they thought the business should go or asking him about his decisions.
“For a young guy coming in and trying to be in charge that can be hard,” he says.
But he soon realized that his coworkers weren’t trying to give him a hard time because they remembered his grandparents.
“Most of our people were extremely supportive, not afraid to pass on institutional knowledge, again not afraid to express their opinions because at the end of the day they only wanted to see this place be successful,” he says. “That’s kind of a neat quality to have in people.”
It’s something he’s going to miss as the company transitions into a new life and moves away from sugar production after low prices and foreign subsidies made that business untenable.