Valley wages are below state, national averages

The average worker in the Northern San Joaquin Valley earned less in wages in 2015 than the nationwide average, with an even sharper lag behind the average within California.

The gap between pay in the Valley compared with the state and nation was reflected in the latest survey of occupational wages released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for metropolitan areas across the country. The May 2015 survey details average hourly and annual wages for more than 800 distinct occupations in the labor force across 22 broad occupational categories.

A Fresno Bee analysis of the salary data shows that the average hourly pay for all workers in Stanislaus – listed as the “Modesto metropolitan statistical area” by the federal agency – was $21.23. That’s about 9 percent lower than the national average hourly or annual pay, and 20 percent less than the average in California.

Merced County workers also were about 9 percent below the U.S. average, making $21.08 an hour. Workers in San Joaquin County fared pennies better – $21.79 an hour – but enough to put them just 6 percent below U.S. average.

Of the 22 major occupational groups, three in Stanislaus to work in for strong comparable pay are health care practitioner and technical (18 percent above U.S. average), health care support (10 percent) and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance (16 percent). All have significantly higher wages than their respective national averages, according to Richard Holden, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ assistant commissioner for regional operations. But only in the last category did the Stanislaus wage, $15.07 an hour, top the California average of $14.46.

“The higher you go in the skill level, the higher the pay,” said Mike Dozier, executive director of the Office of Community and Economic Development at Fresno State. Among medical professionals, “I would bet those are higher than the ... national average (because) it’s really a supply and demand issue.”

On the flip side, seven employment groups in Stanislaus have significantly below-average wages, including legal (29 percent below), business and financial operations (11 percent), management (14 percent), life, physical, and social science (16 percent), sales and related (17 percent), arts, design, entertainment, sports and media (19 percent) and farming, fishing and forestry (12 percent).

In Merced County, five groups had significantly higher wages than their respective national averages: community and social services (13 percent), transportation and material moving (10 percent). health care practitioners and technical (20 percent), protective service (17 percent) and education, training and library (13 percent). In education, the Merced wage was pennies higher than the state average, while transportation wages topped the state average by more than $1.25 an hour. In the other categories, the stage average was higher.

Seven local employment fields had earnings well below national averages: management (15 percent), computer and mathematical (24 percent), life, physical, and social science (17 percent), legal (14 percent), arts, design, entertainment, sports and media (14 percent), sales and related (24 percent) and farming, fishing and forestry (20 percent).

And in San Joaquin County, five groups had significantly higher wages than the national averages: life, physical and social science (10 percent), protective service (30 percent), health care practitioner and technical (18 percent), health care support (11 percent) and community and social service (18 percent). In protective service, the San Joaquin hourly wage was nearly $2 above the state average.

Wages in that local area were well below their national averages in four of the 22 major occupational groups: computer and mathematical (19 percent), arts, design, entertainment, sports and media (23 percent), sales and related (12 percent) and farming, fishing and forestry (15 percent).

“In any economy, whether it’s national, state or local, education has value,” said Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board. “To the extent that we have more residents who have achieved a lesser level of education on average than other parts of the state or country, it’s anticipated that’s what this type of analysis would show.”

The combination of low education and skill levels and the plethora of low-wage jobs creates a dual-pronged urgency for economic development professionals in the region: attracting employers who can provide better-paying jobs, and increasing the educational attainment of the work force to meet the needs of those employers.

The data in the federal survey predates California’s approval earlier this year of a new law that increased the state’s minimum wage from $9 per hour to $10 as of Jan. 1. That will increase to $10.50 per hour at the beginning of 2017 and rise incrementally until it reaches $15 per hour on Jan. 1, 2022.

But the effects of the minimum wage law tend to vary from region to region within the state.

“In the Bay Area, $15 (per hour) is barely sustainable,” said Dozier. “Here (in the Valley), that’s more than a lot of places pay. It bootstraps or hurts smaller businesses that rely on the less-skilled employee.”

Still, Dozier said, raising education and skill levels of local residents is important to the region’s economy.

“Our college attainment rate is low, and whenever you have something like that, the economy in the region is affected by that,” he said. “It’s not that everybody has to get a college education, but it’s an indicator of the economic health of a particular region.”

In the Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, Dozier said, about 47 to 48 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. “And that includes about 21 percent with at least a master’s degree, which is more than what we have for all college attainment,” Dozier said. “Anywhere you look that has a robust economy, you see higher educational attainment.”

Efforts are underway up and down the Valley to create more educational options for residents, Dozier said, from associate’s degrees and certificates in career technical education to bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. “The more people you have trained and educated, the higher wages you’re going to attract,” he said.

“What we need to do in this area more than anything else is emphasize education, not just for the sake of education but for the sake of employment, getting educated in the career fields where you can get a higher-paying job.”

The Modesto Bee’s Deke Farrow contributed to this report.