$1.5 million grant to fund job training for high-speed rail project

The Fresno BeeApril 17, 2013 

An artist's depiction of a high-speed rail train zooming past downtown Fresno.

FRESNO BEE ILLUSTRATION

Unemployed Valley residents hoping to land a job on the California high-speed rail project can get special training thanks to a $1.5 million grant given to the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board.

The training grant from the state Employment Development Department was awarded jointly to the Fresno WIB, the Kern/Inyo/Mono Counties Workforce Investment Board and the Stanislaus County Alliance Worknet to train eligible workers in those counties.

Fresno WIB executive director Blake Konczal said the grant will enable the agency to train at least 325 people in construction and related trades needed for the high-speed rail project.

"This grant is just the beginning of a series of funding sources to start developing our work force to prepare for high-speed rail jobs," Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea said. "It's the beginning of the icing on the cake. It's nice to see the fruits of our labor paying off now."

The Fresno Workforce Investment Board has established a new website to determine the eligibility of job-seekers to receive the training. The website will also help determine whether workers fall under the qualifications of a "targeted hiring initiative" approved last fall by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The targeted hiring goals call for at least 30% of all work hours on the project to be worked by employees who live in "economically disadvantaged areas," and that 10% of that work must be done by "disadvantaged workers" including people who are homeless, veterans, single parents, those receiving public assistance, lacking a high school diploma, chronically unemployed, felons or apprentices with less than 15% of the hours needed to graduate from a trade program.

The website is not for submitting job applications for work on the rail project. But Konczal said people who register on the website will receive information as it becomes available once a contractor is hired, subcontractors identified and job listings posted.

No contractor has been hired yet to begin building the rail project in Fresno and Madera counties. When a contract is awarded, Fresno WIB will be working with the company to help it meet the targeted hiring goals.

"This is a big multistep dance. The targeted hiring initiative gives the opportunity for qualified people to be considered for hiring," Konczal said. "Now, with this grant, we can make sure Fresno residents are properly assessed and trained. We know it's not just a possibility that they'll be hired, but a probability."

Perea, who is a member of the state Workforce Investment Board, said local leaders plan to meet next week with representatives from Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, the consortium of contracting firms that submitted the low bid to design and build the first stretch of the high-speed rail line in the Fresno-Madera area. Once the rail authority awards a construction contract, Perea said, "the contractor will begin mobilizing, hiring the work force they need to get the job done."

Perea added that "we want to lay the groundwork early for communication and drill down on the types of jobs they'll need to fill."

Local leaders have been planning with technical schools and community colleges on what kinds of training might be needed for jobs on the high-speed rail system, said Lee Ann Eager, executive director of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp.

"We've all been on pins and needles waiting to see what the contractor's job list looks like," Eager said. "We've been guessing, but we've been doing research, so it's an educated guess. But we're looking at what we have to do to have enough people ready to accept those jobs."

Eager said the Fresno WIB anticipates training about 300 people for pre-apprenticeship programs in various construction trades. "But there will be thousands of jobs that we need to get people ready for," she added.

County leaders learned about a week ago that their job-training grant application to the state was approved. The grant will be formally announced at a news conference Friday.

Job development in Fresno County and the San Joaquin Valley -- where unemployment rates chronically hover several percentage points higher than state and federal rates -- has been a primary focus of many high-speed rail supporters in the region. In February, the unemployment rate in Fresno County was estimated at 15.4%, compared to the state unemployment rate of 9.6%.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority at one time boasted that construction would create tens of thousands of jobs in the Valley. The agency later tempered that prediction, forecasting in 2011 that construction would be directly responsible for about 1,300 jobs each year in the region during the four-to-five-year construction period, with additional spin-off jobs resulting from that activity.

Perea co-chairs Fresno Works, a coalition of city, county and business leaders who are working to convince the Rail Authority to select Fresno County as the site of a major maintenance facility for the statewide train system. Advocates believe the maintenance station could provide as many as 1,500 permanent jobs and serve as a magnet for additional development related to supporting high-speed rail. Those jobs would be in addition to construction for the rail line itself. Sites in Madera, Fresno, Kings and Kern counties are all vying for consideration, but the rail authority is not expected to choose a site until next year.

High-speed rail training

* To learn whether you are eligible for grant-funded training or qualify as a "disadvantaged worker" for targeted hiring, visit hsrjobs.com.

* The website is not for submitting job applications to work on the high-speed rail project. But people who register at the website will receive information on the contractor and subcontractors as well as job listings as they become available.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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