High-speed rail training grant boosts Valley's job hopes

The Fresno BeeApril 19, 2013 

This artist's conception, done for the rail authority, depicts a high-speed rail car.

CALIFORNIA HIGH-SPEED RAIL AUTHORITY

Fresno leaders said Friday that a $1.5 million grant to train people for jobs building the first stage of California's high-speed rail line has the potential to "transform lives" of local residents.

The grant, funded by the state Workforce Investment Act, will underwrite skills training by the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board for at least 325 people.

Once would-be workers are screened, trained and certified as qualified for various construction jobs and other positions, they will be referred by Fresno WIB to contractors looking for employees.

The funds are targeted to train people in Fresno, Stanislaus, Kern, Inyo and Mono counties.

At a news conference Friday, Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines said the grant presents a much-needed opportunity for people in his district and throughout the city.

"The most important thing about this grant, believe it or not, is education," Baines said. "We're going to educate and prepare a workforce to do this work."

Baines said the training that workers will receive in construction and other fields related to high-speed rail will easily translate to other construction projects.

"We're all excited about high-speed rail, and it's going to transform the face of Fresno and this state for sure, but grants and opportunities like these are going to transform people's lives," he said.

"When you transform people's lives and give them the ability to have skills where they can earn a living wage, you transform families and communities."

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said his goals when he authored high-speed rail legislation as a state legislator in the 1990s were not only to develop a modern transportation system, but also to create good-paying jobs for Valley residents.

"Hiring local workers when we still have a fragile recovery ... is why this is so important," he said Friday. "This grant will provide workers with training they need to prepare them for the opportunities to modernize our state and nation's infrastructure."

Blake Konczal, executive director of Fresno WIB, said some of the first jobs expected on the train project over the coming year will be clearing property along the right of way to prepare for actual construction and relocating utilities.

In addition to construction jobs, "many construction companies will also be hiring office staff and there will be concessionaires that are hired," Konczal added. "It will become a very vibrant work force."

Fresno WIB has set up a website, www.hsrjobs.com, where people can register to learn if they qualify for grant-funded training or are eligible for targeted hiring as "disadvantaged" workers, including veterans or the long-term unemployed. The website also asks registrants for an outline of their relevant work experience or skills.

"The importance of registering at the website is that people want to know when jobs are available, but you have to figure out if you're qualified for the work," Konczal said. "We are only going to refer to contractors people who we certify are employable."

Fresno WIB expects to screen people for physical fitness, education or background experience. "The sooner people get registered on the website, the sooner they get their place in the line," Konczal said.

The website is not a place where people can apply for actual jobs, he said, but those who register will receive updates when contractors are selected or when Fresno WIB is notified of job openings on the high-speed train project.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin is eager for the prospect of thousands of jobs building the high-speed rail project.

"Those jobs are going to be filled by somebody, from somewhere," she said. "Our challenge is to find people here who are qualified, provide them with the additional training they need, and make sure that as many of those jobs as possible are filled by people who actually live here.

"I don't want to discourage anybody from getting themselves ready," she added. "There will be more jobs, most likely, than we have people ready. We need to get our work force ready."

Training won't guarantee a job with a contractor, but Konczal said he is confident that Fresno WIB will be able to place most of its trainees. He said the agency will use the same training model used to train utility workers for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s Power Pathways program for seven years.

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

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