Dear Editor,

The V.I. Department of Labor recently held its closing ceremony for the 2021 Labor Investing for Tomorrow (LIFT) Program. These 44 interns represented an array of college majors including English, engineering and the sciences, computer science and information technology, health professions and sports management, marine transportation and communications, education as well as music education, criminal justice and psychology.

As the ceremony’s keynote speaker, I was honored and humbled, even moved to tears. My jubilation was not due to the event per se, or because I was chosen as the keynote speaker. I was humbled because 32 years ago, I served this government and ran with the opportunity to design, develop and implement the LIFT internship program. Here we are today, still going strong! We are still strong because of every intern who passed through this program!

I share this spotlight with Attorney Gizzette Canegata-Thomas, who as a former LIFT intern, stepped in and executed all the features of the program; former Assistant Commissioner Eleuteria Roberts, who safeguarded and assured its permanency, and then-Labor Commissioner Luis Llanos, who encouraged and supported my push for the pilot program.

My humility is rooted in my belief then, and now, in the potential of every young Virgin Islander. My confidence has not shaken! Our young people are comparable to others worldwide in their dreams and aspirations, ideas and goals, and knowledge and reach. Realizing one’s potential, however, is no easy feat. When each candidate applies for the LIFT internship, they compete for an opportunity. It follows then that becoming a LIFT intern in itself is an applaudable accomplishment.

I look at LIFT’s 2021 interns as intelligent high-achievers. I share their vision, and I feel their concerns regarding coming back home. We must find a way to work it out. You see, the Department of Labor has proven its expertise in training. The department’s track record is clear. LIFT validates this through its 32-year existence. I take this opportunity to commend Labor Commissioner Gary Molloy for his leadership at the department, especially during COVID. He has been consistent in his efforts to lead the development of our local workforce. Last year — and this year — the Labor Commissioner easily could’ve passed over the program. Instead, he directed its continuation even with the threat of COVID-19.

Yet, it is not enough to exist every year. From time to time, the department should tweak the program. Its reach can be boosted, and its underlined goals should be the impetus for young professionals to come home. If not, then our purpose becomes routine.

LIFT’s success can be measured by discipline and throughout career paths. The program can extend itself by collaborating with the Research and Technology Park and the University of the Virgin Islands. It would bring added value to the program and serve as a critical component of the strategic development of the Virgin Islands workforce. Speaking of the university, LIFT may also provide for interns to receive college credits, beginning with UVI. Doing these two things will yield an absolute return on investment exponentially.

Finally, I’ve listened to many young adults talk about working for themselves. At a minimum, workshops tailored for young entrepreneurs can guide them in start-up businesses and access to capital through our local banks, the Small Business Development Center, and the Economic Development Authority.

We look to our leaders and elected officials to address our socio-economic issues, including job training and job opportunities. Gov. Bryan has stepped up to that plate in a big way. As a former Labor commissioner, he understands the dynamics of the labor market, employers’ needs, and what’s necessary to address their concerns. He has advanced a solid plan to deliver a skilled workforce and, in particular, one for young adults. Former LIFT interns Finance Commissioner Bosede Bruce, Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Richard Evangelista, and St. Croix Administrator Sammuel Sanes are stellar examples of the benefits of this foundation.

Tomorrow signifies our youth, and tomorrow is today. Here and now! We know too well the challenges that young people face. What has kept us grounded as we navigated life’s journeys is along the way, someone looked at us and gave us a chance. Today, we know who those people are that gave us those opportunities. More importantly, we are grateful. And with that, we show gratitude. Show gratitude when you are on the receiving end of kindness. And, the most immense gratitude should be to parents or parentlike role models who sacrifice for you. Reciprocate with empathy to others. I also imparted to the interns that success also requires:

• Staying dedicated to your profession, and charting a steady career path.

• Sacrifice, and leaning into your potentials.

• Being resourceful; know your elected officials and access them accordingly.

• Organize and activate.

Twenty years ago, the U. S. Virgin Islands boasted a youthful population. That demographic has steadily changed to an aging population. We lost a significant portion of that young population to crime, illness and relocation. The 2012 closure of the HOVENSA refinery hastened this trend, as these departures created a significant void of the talented and indisputably highly-skilled local workforce. They left home, and most never returned. The pockets of young Virgin Islanders that relocate are ever-increasingly evident. Our ability to slow this movement is paramount, lest we reap the scant harvest of our neglect.

All of our operational and financial plans should consider the needs of young people. We must direct their path toward modernized and affordable housing, specific fee waivers and other incentives, and a socio-economic environment that promotes better opportunities for them. This investment secures the future of our beloved islands, our home.

— Carol M. Burke, St. Croix, is a former senator and assistant Labor Commissioner in the Farrelly-Hodge Administration.