Jeff Jardine

Cast the net wider to find workers

The reasons, or excuses, are generally the same when companies decide against expanding into Stanislaus County.

They claim they can't find enough potential workers who a) can pass a drug screen, and b) have the basic education and skills to do the work.

The issue resurfaced recently when Patrick Gavaghan, developer of the Keystone-Pacific Business Park in Patterson, told a group at a real estate and economics conference that eight major companies had looked seriously at his park but opted to go elsewhere. Had Keystone landed all eight, they could have have provided more than 5,000 jobs.

"Between the drugs and lack of education, they moved on," Gavaghan said.

Employers in the public and private sectors have long bemoaned how drug use affects their ability to hire. As far as education is concerned, they're not talking about finding workers with four-year college degrees, Gavaghan said. They're talking about the inability to recruit enough high school graduates to staff their operations.

Which begs the question: If the buildout of a crisp, new, well-situated business park — home to distribution centers for Longs Drugs and Kohl's department stores — is being slowed by those issues, where will they find enough able workers for the proposed 4,500-acre business park at the former Crows Landing Naval Air Station a few miles down the road?

"Good point. That's why something's got to be done," said Jan Ennenga, who heads the Manufacturers' Council of the Central Valley.

It is, but probably in numbers too small for big business to notice.

There's an increasing emphasis on seeking out high school students who aren't likely to go on to a four-year college, immediately, at least, and getting them interested in manufacturing careers.

Rodney Owen, Modesto City Schools' director of school-to-career education, works with Ennenga and others to identify these students, explaining to them the importance of a high school diploma. They also work with local companies such as Pacific Southwest Container, Kraft and the E.&J. Gallo Winery to generate interest.

The key, Owen said, is getting the students to understand they likely will spend the rest of their working lives learning while earning.

"We've talked to about 900kids," he said. "The message is that there's no longer a job out there where you're going to go to work and just go to work. You continue your education at Modesto Junior College. You're gaining seniority and experience at the company while you're taking courses."

Working the numbers

About 90 Modesto City Schools graduates have completed the training over the past three years and are working in area industries. Owen expects that number to increase dramatically as the program gains steam. Other districts, including Ceres, are emphasizing vocational training, too.

Still, either the schools aren't reaching enough students and preparing them for the work force, or the numbers the companies use to make their location decisions are inaccurate.

Even longtime area businesses struggle to find qualified entry-level workers, Ennenga said.

Gavaghan believes there are enough qualified high school grads to support new businesses. But "we don't have the facts to prove what we know compared to what (companies) think they know," he said.

The Alliance, the agency that promotes economic development in Stanislaus County, studied the demographics within a 20-mile radius of Patterson. It used 2000 U.S. Census figures and more recent population numbers to create 2007 estimates.

It projected there are roughly 209,000 people with at least a high school diploma, and 92,000 without diplomas, within that radius.

But the census counted only those who are 25 or older, excluding roughly seven years of high school graduates who might have joined the work force.

Thus, the numbers don't necessarily provide a clear picture to the companies.

On the other hand, a high school diploma alone doesn't qualify someone to work in warehousing or manufacturing.

"There are the unemployed and the unemployable," Ennenga said. They include job-seekers with poor reading or writing skills, or who have had drug problems or felony convictions.

Owen said the Alliance should have used a 30-mile radius, which would have included all six Modesto public high schools and provided a bigger population base. After all, if people here are willing to drive two hours to jobs in the Bay Area, there are plenty who might drive 30 minutes from Modesto to Patterson.

Also, companies generally demand confidentiality agreements as they bargain for land and buildings. Thus, the educators who could tailor their programs to meet the manufacturers' needs don't get the opportunity to do so.

"We're more than happy to be involved," Owen said. "But we haven't been invited to the table."

It's frustrating

Although Ennenga believes the 20-mile numbers probably are pretty close, it's frustrating to see companies go elsewhere.

"One of the companies located in Stockton, and we were scratching our heads because their (San Joaquin County's) graduation rate was lower than ours," she said. "But they had a larger population base."

Gavaghan said the Yosemite Community College District could go a long way toward appeasing companies' concerns by moving faster on the satellite campus that is planned for Patterson.

The district budgeted $5million to buy land for the campus from its $326 million bond, but hasn't broken ground after more than two years.

In the meantime, opportunities knock, then thud. Companies look, and like what they see at the park, but go where the numbers look more promising.

"We've got kids not going to college who could be getting into the work force and should be getting into the work force," Ennenga said. "The positive is that we know it. Identifying your problem is always the first step in solving the problem. The commitment is there to solve it. We need to gear up and get our resources in the same direction."

Or at least expand the radius.

Jeff Jardine's column appearsSundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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