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U.S. Department of the Interior - Office of Insular Affairs
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Remarks of the Honorable Anthony M. Babauta Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior for Insular Areas Forum on Economic and Labor Development Saipan, CNMI

November 9, 2010

Good morning and Hafa Adai.  On behalf of Secretary Salazar, myself and the Office of Insular Affairs, I want to welcome you all to the Department of the Interior's Forum on Economic and Labor Development.  I would also like to thank Governor Fitial for his support of this Forum.  Also, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Congressman Sablan on his re-election and his support of this Forum.  Together, in the months and years ahead – we along with all of you will be largely responsible for diversifying the economy and strengthening the work force. 

We are all here today because we are concerned with the state of the economy in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.  For far too long, the people of the CNMI have suffered as their economy has dwindled.  From the closure of the garment industry to the departure of major airlines, such as Japan Airlines and Continental, the CNMI has endured setback after setback. 

A strategy needs to be developed to put the Commonwealth's economy back on the path to recovery and sustainability.  Developing such a strategy gives the CNMI the unique but indispensible opportunity to shape its future for future generations.  This requires fresh, innovative and creative solutions and not a history lesson on how the CNMI arrived at its present state.

As you may know, Public Law 110-229, the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, or CNRA, authorizes the Department of the Interior to provide technical assistance in the Commonwealth in its economic recovery efforts. I am optimistic that this technical assistance program can aid the CNMI's recovery efforts.

Congress was specific in its direction as to what the technical assistance program is to accomplish:

  1. To identify opportunities for, and to encourage the diversification and growth of, the economy of the Commonwealth; 
  2. To assist in the recruiting, training, and hiring of workers;
  3. To assist employers in the Commonwealth in securing U.S. eligible employees, first from among U.S. citizens and residents, then from among legal permanent residents including lawfully admissible citizens of the freely associated states;
  4. To assist in the identification of types of jobs needed, skills needed to fulfill such jobs; and
  5. To assist educational entities in the Commonwealth to develop curricula for such job skills to include training teachers and students. 

Today's forum will serve as the initial phase in the process of developing this technical assistance program.  But, I do recognize the initiative taken by Governor Fitial in 2009 and the work from the Economic Restoration Summit.  We will discuss each of the TA program's goals and to hear from you, the people of the CNMI, those who will be affected most, how such a TA program could best benefit the CNMI in the areas of economic growth, recruitment, and training.

This morning, we will focus on identifying those industries that will diversify as well as drive the revitalization of the CNMI's economy while being mindful of what the challenges to developing each of these growth industries such as logistical obstacles or required skills and positions within the industries.

Later, this afternoon, we will concentrate on the recruiting, hiring, training, and retaining of U.S. eligible workers, which include U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and citizens of the Freely Associated States.  Finally, you will be asked to discuss the skills and training necessary for these U.S. eligible workers to fill the identified jobs. 

The results of today's discussions will give us the necessary stakeholder in-put to develop a technical assistance program that meets the challenges identified to diversify and grow the CNMI economy back to vitality.  More importantly, whatever effort we embark on to spur sustainable economic growth will necessitate initiatives that focus on the importance of education, ensuring our communities are equipped with the necessary tools to compete in our ever-evolving economy. We must also invest and focus locally, ensuring our communities benefit from whatever opportunities will be created. This requires us to identify and support whatever local businesses and initiatives are currently in place and assist in bolstering them further and ensuring that at the end of the day our focus is continuously on the CNMI. The options and the course ahead are limitless and infinite. Opportunities and their longevity are however enhanced and strengthened when we emphasize the indispensible value of our cultural heritage, our natural resources and the integrity of the worker. Through a collective and broad-based effort, where the focus and trajectory is clearly determined from the onset, we can rebuild this economy, develop real, tangible and lasting solutions, overcome challenges and respond to the fundamental principle that drives and motivates the presence of each and every one of you present here today—and that is the desire, intrinsic in each one of us, to want to get by and provide for our families. And your participation today and in the days, weeks and months that will follow is further evidence that the CNMI is well underway to molding and cultivating its own destiny where this island and its people will thrive and flourish. 

I couldn't be more pleased with the turnout for today's forum and I want to applaud all of you for being here – for being engaged – for caring about this island's future.

Today will be one where all who are gathered here will come up with the ideas on how we move forward.  It will be dynamic and engaging and I look forward to continuing to work with the Governor, Congressman Sablan, and all the leaders in the CNMI – public and private.  Thank you again for your participation.