Laura Woods makes a good living at her job as a forklift driver for a can company in Stanislaus County, where she earned $63,000 last year, a third of which came from overtime.
"I feel fortunate that I have my job. I have benefits, and the wages I make are pretty good," said the 46-year-old from Modesto. "But those types of jobs are disappearing with companies moving overseas. It is scary. Nothing seems secure anymore."
She's not alone in her concern. Workers say they are worried about keeping their jobs during an economically unstable time and with double-digit unemployment in Stanislaus County.
Most people interviewed for "What People Earn," The Bee's version of the annual Parade magazine report in today's paper, say they are pleased with their salary and quality of life in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Even though the wages are lower than in the Bay Area, they say, it is enough to live here comfortably.
Many feel grateful just to have a job.
"If you have a job, you are lucky," said
Vita Perez, a work force consultant with Stanislaus County's Alliance Worknet. She counsels job seekers.
"When I have someone coming in that says, 'I have a part-time job and I want to go to full time,' I say to them: Don't quit. That way, at least you won't feel pressured to find work. Keep the job and pursue other avenues or education, but keep your job," Perez said.
Competition for jobs is stiff, she said. Administrative and clerical positions that pay $10 to $18 an hour are among the jobs in highest demand in the region, she said, but for every opening there are dozens of well-qualified applicants.
"Everyone is feeling this crunch right now. It is so important with the unemployment rate at 10.8 percent (in Stanislaus County) for people to look into what skills they have that they can transfer to other areas," said Darlene Smith, rapid response coordinator for the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.
Valley wages rising
Despite recent economic woes, wages are rising in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The average weekly wage in Stanislaus County last year was $696, or about $36,200 a year, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures released last week.
That's about 3 percent higher than the previous year.
In San Joaquin County, wages averaged about $715 a week, or $37,200 a year, marking a 4.1 percent increase.
Merced County was not included in the release.
Salaries are notably higher in the Bay Area, where the average weekly wages in three counties are ranked among the top 10 in the nation.
Santa Clara County was No. 1 at $1,585 a week, or $82,420 annually, San Mateo County was fifth at $1,322 a week, and San Francisco County was in the No. 8 spot at $1,286.
Those wages are why a number of valley residents choose to continue commuting to the Bay Area for work, despite high gas prices.
Patterson resident Scott Raley commutes about 190 miles round-trip every day to his job as a foreman and carpenter in Daly City in San Mateo County. His annual income is $80,000.
"My wages would be cut drastically if I worked in the Central Valley," said Raley, 40.
Still, there are plenty of occupations in high demand in Stanislaus County that provide solid wages, said Perez and Smith.
Maintenance mechanics who work in factories or industrial operations are continually sought, they said. Those jobs typically start at about $15 an hour.
Truck driving is another good bet.
"Even with high gas prices, there are still truck companies who need drivers," Perez said. "They are getting hired right after training. Entry-level, long-haul jobs can pay $35,000 to 40,000 a year with benefits."
Health care can be a good bet
The need for licensed vocational nurses, registered nurses and in-home caregivers is booming along with an aging population, Perez and Smith said.
The median salary for LVNs is $45,499 a year, and registered nurses earn about $75,655 a year, according to the state Employment Development Department.
But there's no guarantee a health care job will be available. Some students have found that after they complete expensive training in medical and dental assisting, there aren't any positions, Perez said.
Sometimes, however, the right mix of wage, location and work environment come together.
Second-year teacher Desirae Sutton, 24, says she is happy with her salary and living in the valley. The Hughson resident is a kindergarten teacher at Don Pedro Elementary in Ceres.
She earns about $42,000 a year.
"I like the area and the atmos-phere in Ceres and Modesto," she said. "It is still the hometown feeling, where you know the students. You see them at stores and talk to their parents."
A single mother of young twins, Sutton said she can provide well for her children.
"I'm still making a great living for me and my family," she said.
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-4574.