Population – A Development Essential

Population – A Development Essential

A census provides an accurate “snapshot” of a society at a precise point in time and it is the only time when an accurate enumeration of the population is undertaken. When the 1990 census was taken the total employed labor force in the Commonwealth was 25,965 within a total population of 43,345 which included nonresident workers but omitted the average daily tourist population. At the time the total indigenous population was 17,181 persons, or 39.6 percent of the Commonwealth’s total resident and nonresident population. In that census year the indigenous labor force (both those employed and unemployed), between the ages of 16 and 65 years numbered 7,476 of which it was estimated that 4,777 (63.8 percent) were employed.

The remaining 2,699 (36.2 percent) consisted of students, housewives and others not employed. In that census year, the CNMI government’s retirement fund reported having 3,959 active members consisting of both indigenous and non indigenous employees. In 1990 there were 21,188 nonresident workers which made up 81.6 percent of the labor force. Considering the annual rate of growth of the indigenous population as measured between 1973 and 1990 and assuming that this rate of growth continues, there will not be a sufficient local population within the indigenous labor force to staff the 25,965 available jobs in the Commonwealth that existed in 1990 until well into the next century. While the current economic slowdown has resulted in the reduction of some nonresident workers, particularly in the construction sector, (and soon in the garment industry), from the recorded high point of a few years ago, the above population growth estimate does provide an important indicator of the Commonwealth's desperate need for outside labor to supplement the supply of available local indigenous labor. Depending upon the annual rate of population growth within the indigenous population, a growth rate of 1.85 percent will result in 92,783 indigenous persons of all ages in the year 2080 with the 1990 employment level reached around that time. A three percent growth rate, which is extremely unlikely, will result in reaching the 1990 employment level by the year 2050. The year 2050 is as distant from the present as 1940 is in the past. The year 2080 lacks only twenty years from the end of the next century and is as close to us today as the year 1910 is a quondam period. To recall those distant times in another way, 1910 is the year Japan annexed Korea. A distant time of the German period when the population was 3,029.

The year 1940 was within the Japanese period when the population was 47,000, mostly Japanese. One factor which could take the pressure off and shorten the time for the indigenous population to catch up is to adjust the base year calculation (25,965) and lower the number of workers, which may be exactly what will occur if more garment factories close. One firm that has announced it’s closing had some 550 employees on its payroll in 1990. Playing with the numbers, (we call it using mirrors), and deducting that number from those employed in the base year would also require adjusting the population growth factors there-by reducing the time period to reach what once was the 1990 employment level. At the moment, however, it’s too small for concern. Still, the nonresident worker is a valuable and indispensable element in the Commonwealth's "new" economy and it is indeed fortunate that the CNMI is in proximity to Asia with its surplus labor pool which can be tapped to augment the Northern Marianas limited indigenous supply of workers. To cite only one example of this need, it is a generally accepted industry "rule of thumb" that a full service resort hotel requires from one to one and one half employees per room in the facility. Considering the 3,362 hotel rooms in the area, more than 3,500 hotel employees are required to staff this one industry alone. This does not consider the employees necessary to operate the remaining economic sectors of the islands. Had the CNMI not permitted the influx of nonresident workers, the small indigenous population and thus a limited human resource base would have served as an obstacle effectively "capping" the economy at the level of the late 1970’s early 80’s. Very little land would have been leased as there would be only a few local people available to develop projects which is the reason land was leased in the first place.

The availability of imported workers helped Commonwealth land owners to create interest among outside investors in leasing their land. Many millions were made. Over one 12 month period from 1989 to ‘90 land prices on Tinian soared from $12 per square meter to $200. Of course there were other reasons which created investor interest in the Commonwealth primarily among the Japanese and essentially as a result of the devaluation of the dollar in relation to the yen in 1986. The Japanese had more dollars than they could digest domestically and they went abroad looking for opportunities in which to put this surplus to work. Huge sums were invested in the Northern Marianas. The pace of investment between 1986 and 1991 was such that a level of development which normally would take 20 to 25 years to occur was squeezed into the short span of five or six years.

It was largely an accident of fate that the CNMI was in the right place at the right time and it is not likely that those days will ever again return. Development will continue, but at a much slower and normal pace. Back then, and still true today, one of the characteristics of the U.S. dollar and the Japanese yen being that even at the present, the yen has a greater foreign exchange value that it has domestic purchasing power. It is the exact opposite of the dollar which buys more at home than it does abroad.