Does Fresno have a workforce capable of attracting companies with lots of jobs to fill?
It’s an apt question now that local schools and universities are back in session.
It’s also a timely issue in light of Mayor Lee Brand’s vision for the local economy. Brand has made jobs the No. 1 issue for his administration. He’s shooting for the creation of up to 20,000 new jobs over the next eight to 10 years.
The arrival of two huge e-commerce centers – Amazon and Ulta Beauty – is a big step in that direction. But the Mayor and community leaders still have a long haul ahead of them.
Fresno and Fresno County won’t be at the forefront of the 21st century economy if local labor can’t handle 21st century work.
I chatted recently about this challenge with Lee Ann Eager, chief executive of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp.
In a nutshell, Eager said there’s legitimate reason for hope on the jobs/workforce readiness front. But, she added, the future won’t be easy.
“As an economic developer, and I travel around the state and the country and the world trying to bring new business to Fresno County, the No. 1 issue they (business leaders) always bring up is workforce,” Eager said “’Do you have a trained workforce in your area so that I can bring my company and hire local folks?’ They have always told me it’s ‘no.’ They have always said, ‘I would love to come to Fresno County. I would love to open an e-commerce center or an industrial business there. But you don’t have a trained workforce and we don’t have time to do that.’
“So, about three or four years ago, I came back and talked to the Workforce Development Board and the (Fresno County) Department of Social Services and State Center Community College District and said, ‘This is completely unacceptable. We have to say no to businesses because we don’t have a trained workforce when we have thousands of people unemployed. That’s unacceptable. Let’s figure out a way to fix that ahead of time.’
“So, we’re doing this now as a coordinated effort. (For example), the Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Social Services have a large contract where if I know a business is coming — let’s just say Amazon — and I know what kinds of jobs, and I get the job descriptions and the qualifications, and I get that (information) ahead of time, (then) we work with the Department of Social Services and all of their folks who are on food stamps or Welfare to Work. (We) start training them now. Whatever those barriers that we have in order to get them hired — if they need to get a GED, if we need to do additional math training, if we need to get them training on computer equipment — we start now so that by the time next year comes along and they (company leaders) need 400 people, we’ll have 400 people ready. We’ll have a thousand people ready. And whether it’s with the Workforce Development Board, the Department of Social Services, the State Center Community College District — we’re working with Carole Goldsmith at Fresno City College — together we’ll make sure that no matter what job it is, no matter what industry it is, we’re going to have people ready to go.”
I asked if the EDC has a detailed snapshot of the nature of Fresno County’s workforce.
“We’ve hired an economist who is really looking at that data set,” Eager said. “What is it we really do have? Are we expecting too much of ourselves? How many people would we really be able to put to work? And we haven’t had that (data) before. And it’s not just the EDC. It takes a huge partnership in order to make this (research) happen.”
That partnership, Eager said, includes the Workforce Development Board, government agencies, school districts and universities.
I asked if the lower end of the local workforce is in such disrepair that new companies coming to town prefer to poach experienced workers from existing businesses.
“There are always companies that say, ‘I want the folks that are already working,’” Eager said. “But as those (experienced workers) go, we backfill…. If we really want to move that (employment) needle, we have to make sure that the folks who really need the jobs, the folks that are getting services from the County of Fresno or from some of our partners, we need to make sure that they have a chance. And I think before they didn’t have a chance. That’s what we’re working on.”
Who, I asked, is leading this admirable but daunting effort?
“There is a small group of us who came together and said, ‘We want to make a difference.’” Eager said. “The group we have, we’re all heading in the same direction. We’re the ones who can make sure things happen.”
Eager said this group of about 12 local leaders includes Fresno City College President Carole Goldsmith, Workforce Development Board Chief Executive Blake Konczal, Reading and Beyond Chief Executive Luis Santana, Mayor Brand and, of course, the EDC’s top boss.
Eager said the group’s marching order is simple: “We have to do this together.”
Finally, I asked if work has a future. After all, there’s lots of talk out there about the looming revolution of Artificial Intelligence. Then there’s the perpetual growth of the Entitlement State. Those two trends suggest the days of the 8-to-5, 40-hour-a-week job are numbered.
“Work will always have a future,” Eager said. “It might look a little bit different 20 years from now than 20 years ago. But there has to be that human element, no matter what we do.”
Eager places much of her faith in the energy and vision of youth.
“I have a staff here of 25, and I think 20 of them are under 35 years old,” Eager said. “It’s amazing to watch their minds work. They’re not willing to sit back and do things the same way that people have done them for the last 35 years. You say, ‘Here’s an issue.’ They jump in and say, ‘Let’s fix it. And we’ll do something different if it doesn’t work.’
“I don’t wear rose-colored glasses. But I certainly do feel we’re heading in the right direction. There are so many exciting things coming. And this group of people (at the EDC) — if they’re any indication of the rest of the folks out there, we’re in good hands.”