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Lack of skilled workers in Stanislaus could affect economic growth

POSTED March 13, 2014 9:24 p.m.

Every Monday night, roughly 25 students fill the seats of Ken Oyer’s Workforce Readiness Skills class at the Turlock Adult School. Although a few are high school students looking to complete missing credits, a majority of the students are adults seeking training in basic skills as they prepare to reenter the job market.

Although many of these adult students are working towards new career opportunities after becoming victims of the 2008 economic downfall that left thousands unemployed, an increase in workforce training programs such as Oyer’s class have been developed throughout Stanislaus County in recent years, as the region continually addresses a longtime economic barrier facing the region — an overall unskilled workforce.

While many local agencies and organizations seeking economic growth continually call for increased educational and training programs to alleviate this barrier, the overwhelming prevalence of an unskilled workforce has hindered Stanislaus County’s economic development efforts over the past 40 years. With a key transitional period in Stanislaus County’s labor force occurring throughout the late 1970s, the California State University, Stanislaus Center for Public Policy cited a subsequent noticeable decline in both the County’s labor force participation rate and employment to population ratio. Resulting in regional negative impacts that would last for years to come, changes in the labor market created a dire picture of high unemployment rates in Stanislaus County, which continually characterize the region today.

With the current unemployment rate of 13.3 percent being considerably higher than the state and national percentages, Stanislaus County continues to struggle with the abundance of unskilled workers that have been at the center of discussions between county leaders and city officials for decades. Despite various education-based efforts throughout the years, the percentage of persons over the age of 25 in Stanislaus County holding a bachelor’s degree or higher remains at a dismal 16.3 percent — roughly half of the current state percentage.

As many recent successes achieved by the City of Turlock in terms of economic recovery have led city officials and business community leaders to begin exploring reeling in new industrial opportunities, others such as the Mayor’s Economic Development Task Force have cited the region’s lack of skilled workers as a potential barrier to attracting new businesses. With companies such as Blue Diamond and Hilmar Cheese Factory stationing at Turlock Regional Industrial Park, City Manager Roy Wasden has called Turlock the “future Silicon Valley of the high-tech food processing industry.” While Wasden’s aspirations are certainly not far-fetched, as the Turlock Regional Industrial Park has plenty of shovel-ready ground available for new industrial users, Turlock would need an abundance of skilled, qualified workers ready to revolutionize the face of Turlock’s economy.

But with surveys of Stanislaus employers and unemployed residents consistently noting relatively low educational attainment levels and a lack of skills as being key barriers to employment, Turlock and the surrounding region will have to hammer down on local workforce training programs in order to attract the new industries being competitively sought after.

With the same surveys highlighting basic, technical, interpersonal, and thinking skills as being areas in need of reinforcement amongst Stanislaus’ current workforce, many local training programs are focusing on teaching the basics of work ethic and real-life problem solving.

During the multiple weeks spent in Oyer’s Workforce Readiness Skills class, students are taught three basic components: Math, Reading, and Situational Judgment.

“We take basic math skills and the students are required to answer word problems to find solutions to problems they would face in a work place environment,” explained Oyer. “Many of these students are adults and have been out of school for a long time, so the math refresher component of the class can be difficult for some, but we check to make sure they’re able to apply those principles…For the reading component, what we’re working towards and stress is the understanding of the material, whether it is a business journal or a mock work email about collaborating with a coworker to complete a project. It’s about reading, understanding and evaluating the material in a variety of mediums…The third component, Situational Judgment, encourages the students to be cooperative when working with customers, coworkers and those in authority above them. It helps the students understand and prepare for the various encounters they’ll have in the workplace, and how to use their best judgment.”

Turlock Adult School is not the only local workforce program making strides in education-based efforts, as the Stanislaus County Alliance Worknet continues to expand its own employment services. Offering the Work Keys Program and Skills Test, the Alliance offers an assessment based on “real world” skills in communications, problem solving and teamwork. After taking the assessment, participants are given a score card that can be presented to potential employers during an interview or application process, providing Alliance-backed proof of personal skills.

While the Alliance is the local agency responsible for implementing the five year strategic plan under the Workforce Investment Act, other training programs such as the Stanislaus County Welfare to Work Program and various vocational schools throughout the County are joining together to better strengthen the local workforce.

“A representative from the Alliance came into our class to give the students information on getting hired through the County, and as a teacher, I was so motivated when he explained to them that our curriculum in the class was very similar to the questions they ask on their Work Keys test,” said Oyers. “So they feel encouraged that when they complete our class, they can take that test with confidence and do well on it. This in turn could help create new opportunities for them in their career.”

 As the Turlock Adult School and other community organizations such as the Mayor’s Economic Task Force look to bolster the regional workforce to help Turlock and Stanislaus County attract new employment opportunities and industries, several have noted that the region’s high levels of unemployment are not just due to a lack of skilled workers, but several factors such as cyclical changes in the economy and seasonal or temporary jobs.

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