A lack of education has a very real impact on the lives of those searching for work, determining their wages and overall quality of life.
But it also has a much broader effect.
Low education levels in the Northern San Joaquin Valley have restricted the region's ability to develop a diverse economy and attract higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs.
"Education is a fundamental driver of economic growth," said Sean Snaith, the director of the Business Forecasting Center at University of the Pacific in Stockton. "It is something that is probably one of the biggest problems in the region and a long-run impediment to growth."
Jeff Rowe, work force development director for Alliance WorkNet, said a major part of the problem is the classic "chicken and egg" scenario:
Businesses are unwilling to move to an area where there isn't enough skilled labor. But, at the same time, trained workers won't stick around if there are no jobs available.
"We can try to train our work force and convince them to get a higher education in the hopes that we'll attract higher-paying jobs," he said. "But then we have the problem of first convincing the employees to get that type of education when they know the jobs aren't here."
Companies that offer jobs requiring a college degree -- such as technology firms -- traditionally have been hesitant to move to the valley because of the lack of potential employees.
"Businesses look at work force and education levels and they base their decision to locate here on those factors," Rowe said. "Because of that, we tend to get more of the businesses that only need employees with a high school education or vocational training."
That means many of the jobs available in the valley are skewed toward the lower end of the pay scale, Snaith said.
"Education and income are highly correlated. The more education you have, the more your earnings will be," he said. "A lack of education is going to limit your income opportunities."
Manufacturing jobs or occupations that only require vocational training are an attractive option for people who are unable to attain higher education, said Linda Boston, business development manager for Modesto.
"Not everybody has to have a college education to be successful," she said, adding that those jobs are necessary to support the valley's current work force.
The challenge is expanding the economy to include a greater mix of jobs that require different education levels, she said.
College grads likely to be in demand
Demand for college graduates is expected to grow throughout the state as college-educated baby boomers begin to retire.
By 2022, one in three new California jobs will require an associate degree, bachelor's degree or higher, according to a recent economic study by the California Business Roundtable and the Campaign for College Opportunity. Only about one in four jobs in the state today has such a requirement.
The absence of an educated work force can be a costly problem for employers.
In 2001, the Atwater Federal Penitentiary was forced to delay its opening by several months because it couldn't find enough qualified staff to fill various positions.
The initial goal was to hire 60 percent of its staff from the valley. That number dropped to 40 percent because there weren't enough qualified or educated applicants, officials said.
The lack of a large college-educated work force makes it difficult to diversify the types of businesses willing to locate in the area, Boston said.
"Diversification is important because it creates a growing economy," she said. "When you want to try to diversify, you are up against other cities where college degrees are more available."
The city has had some success in the medical field, she said. With the Kaiser Modesto Medical Center scheduled to open in November 2007, there will be a high demand for nurses and other skilled health-care personnel.
Programs already are in place to increase training for nurses at California State University, Stanislaus, and Modesto Junior College.
Corwin Harper, a senior vice president with Kaiser, said finding enough qualified staff has been a concern. In addition to recruiting from outside the area, the hospital plans to hire new graduates from local colleges, he said.
"We have got to start earlier than college to get people thinking about these types of jobs," he said.
There has been a long-standing attitude about college in the valley that must change, Snaith said.
"If no one around you is saying education is valuable, then you are far less likely to see that it is valuable," he said.
The growing commuter population is creating a shift away from that trend, Snaith said. Commuters tend to have higher education levels and stress the value of education to their children, he said.
When trying to lure businesses to the area, economic development officials often will point to the "transplants" as a source of skilled labor.
"We still may have an imbalance, but eventually a firm will look at Stanislaus County and realize they can staff a facility here," he said.
In the valley, the jobs of the future are going to require a college degree, said Boston.
"When it comes to liveable wage jobs, education is the key," she said.
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at 238-4574 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Stanislaus County, many of the jobs in high demand do not require a four-year college degree.
Below is a list of the top 10 occupations in Stanislaus County with the fastest projected growth through 2008, according to the state Employment Development Department's labor market information division.
Computer specialists; network and computer systems administrators; education, training and library workers; and financial specialists are the only jobs that require a college education, and some of those only require an associate degree.
Here is a look at the top 10 occupations with the fastest job growth (by percent change) in Stanislaus County: