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Turlock lacks skilled workers, says economic taskforce
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The Mayor's Economic Taskforce focused on one area of weakness at Tuesday's meeting, Turlocks heavy population of the unskilled and unemployed. - photo by Journal file photo

The Mayor’s Economic Taskforce, whose focus is finding ways to bolster Turlock’s local economy, says that there is a high prevalence of unskilled workers in the area, and is set on trying to fix that.

Tuesday, the 25-member committee met at City Hall to continue their progress in developing a full Economic Development Plan to be presented to the City Council later this year. While reviewing the previous economic plan of 2003, the committee zeroed in on the strengths and weaknesses currently facing Turlock in the City’s attempts to attract new businesses. Of the weaknesses identified, one in particular gained considerable attention – Turlock’s heavy population of the unskilled and unemployed.

“In this area there is a lack of skills and basic employability,” said Mike Brem, vice-chair of the taskforce. “As a business owner who hires employees, I know I can speak for myself and say that this is still an issue.”

Noting the need for a better trained workforce, Brem called for suggestions from committee members on how to ensure that the City is well-equipped for new businesses seeking skilled workers. While some highlighted the public library and local university as possible resources to provide such education, a majority of the taskforce agreed that both Pitman and Turlock high schools should become better-equipped to supply vocational training programs for students who are not college bound.

“We need to find what we can do within the local high school system that will bridge the gap between high school and the workforce,” said Turlock attorney Richard Mowery. “Doing so would allow us to prepare a qualified workforce….It’s something that should start in high school before graduating, so that students can know where they’re going and where to get the resources they need. People go to college and have that guidance, but there are many who don’t go, and they have no direction.”

A 2009 survey found that within Stanislaus County, only 14.1 percent of residents age 25 and older held a bachelor’s degree or higher, leaving a majority of the local workforce ineligible for many high-skilled jobs. As Turlock continues to attract several new businesses to the shovel-ready Turlock Regional Industrial Park, City Manager Roy Wasden says that many of the new high-tech facilities will not help reduce the city’s unemployment rate of unskilled workers.

“It seems to be degree required, high-skilled jobs that we’re attracting,” said Wasden, “which is not solving our unemployment problem for unskilled individuals. It is, however, going to help keep our high-skilled residents who were previously commuting elsewhere for work, and keep their tax dollars here in Turlock, as we gain more high-skilled jobs….We’re going to evolve into the Silicon Valley of food processing, and it is becoming a very high-tech industry.”

But as the industrial side of Turlock continues to grow, several members of the task force believe there is also an immediate need for skilled workers who are not degree-holding individuals, but rather trained in hands-on, vocational skills.

“We need employees with knowledge of mechanics,” said Brem. “We know that we have a lot of unemployed, unskilled workers, so we need to find ways to reduce the unemployment for those people that we have here.”

Partnering with the City of Turlock and the taskforce is the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance, an organization dedicated to providing workforce training activities and business development services within the county. According to the Alliance representative, the organization does work alongside several area high schools to provide skill-level assessments for graduating students who do not plan on attending college. The assessment – a national job skills assessment system called WorkKeys – identifies and measures key workplace skills and knowledge a student possesses. After completing the assessment, students are provided with a WorkKeys Certificate to present to a potential employer. According to the Alliance, employers across the nation are using the certificate as a means to determine whether or not an applicant is qualified for employment.

Although the WorkKeys assessment is offered to any interested person through the Alliance, members of the committee continued to emphasize the need for vocational training through the school district.

“We need to make sure we’re establishing partnerships and working relationships between our business owners and the school district,” said Turlock physician Jim Reape. “It will help students see what business is about, while making sure they are receiving training.”

Aside from high school opportunities, the committee has also been seeking partnerships with California State University, Stanislaus. According to Maryn Pitt, the assistant to the City Manager for Economic Development and Housing, the City has been in contact with the professor in charge of student internships, as they plan to establish internship opportunities between college students and local businesses.

“There’s a new level of partnership that came with Dr. Sheley as he took over as president of the university,” said Wasden. “He is committed to these kinds of programs and community involvement, and that is something we really appreciate.”

The next Mayor’s Economic Task Force meeting, where members will continue to review strengths and weaknesses of the Economic Development Plan, will be held at 4 p.m. on March 4 at City Hall.