What’s the Answer?

The question of the state of Fresno’s economy is a perennial topic for conversation, both heated and convivial! Irregardless of the overall trends of the national or state economy in which we “float”, Fresno’s economic health is always of keen interest. Long before the recent economic recession and collapse of the housing market shook the nation, Fresno had suffered through more than a decade of double-digit unemployment. All of the underlying strengths and weaknesses of our local economy are present in good and bad times.

When we ask businesses what are their main issues, the same three items appear at the top of their list – albeit in differing order:

  1. Access to capital
  2. The general business climate
  3. Finding a qualified workforce.

Of these business priorities, the one that is most immediately in our grasp is assisting businesses in finding a qualified workforce! There are scores of good paying positions in our community that are going unfilled because employers cannot find qualified applicants.

Simultaneously, and this will seem counterintuitive, there are an insufficient number of jobs for the tens of thousands of workers in our community who are currently unemployed. While the unemployment rate in Fresno County for May (the most recent data available) was 12.3%, the total number of unemployed workers is far greater. The majority of these people are unemployed because there are an insufficient number of jobs for them – while at the same time, a smaller number of better jobs go unfilled for lack of a qualified workforce.

What is the secret to untying this Gordian Knot? It is a commitment on the part of our community to raise the education and skill levels of our residents and to commit to economic development policies that do not market our weaknesses.  Lee Ann Eager and her crew at the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation are trying to attract the “best” businesses to Fresno, and our lack of a qualified workforce undercuts those efforts. Craig Scharton’s efforts to revitalize downtown are weakened if we don’t have the “human capital” needed to go after the best industry sectors. Having as our economic development trump card the fact that Fresno is a cheap place to do business is a foolhardy way to try to achieve economic success.

When in the past we have attracted business because of our “cheapness” we have sown the seeds of economic ferment and downturn. There will always be a cheaper place to do business, either in other parts of the United States or internationally.

What concrete steps can we take as a community?

  1. Create a hiring environment that encourages young people to stay in high school to get a diploma. Why couldn’t local businesses subscribe to a community hiring policy mandating just that?
  2. Realize that the vast majority of graduating high school seniors are not going to a four-year university and that the majority of those who do begin at a four-year university are not matriculating. We must re-create vocational educational opportunities for this vast un-served population.
  3. Stop attracting low paying industries to our community under the “banner of cheapness.” Create better employment opportunities so that the graduates of our four-year institutions are given access to jobs that encourage them to stay.

We have the community resources needed to achieve these goals. If we can stop focusing on the quick profit generated by an economic development model that trumpets our weakness it will be a good start.

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