These are exciting times in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley. The region is growing and focused, like never before, on engaging more people to create an inclusive economy — one that confronts its challenges and inequities together and also leverages its unique assets.
But there’s much more work to do. A big step takes place this coming week, when California’s governor joins community members and leaders across the state at the California Economic Summit in Fresno (hosted by California Forward).
Employers are critical attendees, considering their outsized impact in creating opportunities for workers. This past summer, we invited Fresno employers to discuss how to invest in entry-level workers to improve bottom lines and opportunity, for all, in recruiting, hiring and promotions. (It was one of six roundtables the Irvine Foundation and local partners hosted with 73 employers across the state.)
Californians working the lowest-wage jobs certainly need the opportunity. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization, found in 2018 that 68% of San Joaquin Valley workers struggled with poverty. Less than half of all Valley residents believe the American dream is still attainable, and 77% would encourage young people to leave for opportunities elsewhere — the state’s most pessimistic response rate.
The San Joaquin Valley has recently produced strong job growth, but unemployment, under-employment, and wages lag compared to other regions. People of color in the San Joaquin Valley — its fastest-growing demographic — face even greater barriers to quality education, jobs and advancement.
Something must change, as talent exists in every Valley household. It was encouraging to hear from employers at the Fresno roundtable (representing agriculture, health, retail and more) that we cannot have a robust economy and also the nation’s highest poverty rate.
Employers shared challenges unique to the region: tight margins for certain industries, too little public transportation, fear and shortages following federal immigration raids, and workers without the necessary skills. Companies struggle to retain workers who leave for other opportunities, for education/training or due to personal hardships.
Fortunately, local employers have approaches to share: Fresno Plumbing provides 1:1 counseling to help employees navigate disruptions in their personal lives; Fowler Packing covers health care for workers’ families; and employers hire the PrideStaff staffing agency to train workers while employed (not after or instead of their shift).
Fresno-based Bitwise Industries also offers promise. Their Geekwise Academy teaches digital and IT skills through real, paid projects for clients. So far, they’ve trained 4,000 people, and 80% of graduates have secured jobs — in Fresno — generally starting at $20/hour.
Education, as always, looms large for employers and the region. Fortunately, our regional ecosystem of community colleges and universities is strong: 90% of Fresno State students are from the Central Valley, and 80% of graduates stay in the Valley. Fresno State had a record number of graduates (6,200) this past May, and more than 60% came from low-income households and were the first in their families to graduate from a university.
Despite this, higher education’s costs, capacity, and ability to keep pace with changing industries impact how many Californians get degrees that lead to a livable wage. Long-term, the region needs stronger educational opportunities, including aligning and reforming cradle-to-career systems, and more funds for career-technical education at community colleges — and in more locations.
Leaders from Fresno-area universities and community colleges have developed innovative ideas that could model the way for all of California, and, importantly, employers should be active partners.
The Irvine Foundation is eager to partner with employers on just that, as well as supporting efforts that engage low-income residents of color on the solutions and vision they have for educational and economic opportunity (like our recent listening sessions).
We share the region’s eagerness in engaging with the Fresno D.R.I.V.E. plan. The 10-year initiative for inclusive, sustainable economic growth will be featured at the Economic Summit.
That, along with the California governor’s commitment to San Joaquin Valley workers and inland California, make for exciting times in the Valley. Let’s turn that momentum into real change for the workers that drive the economy and represent our future.
Joseph I. Castro is president of California State University, Fresno. Don Howard is president/CEO of The James Irvine Foundation