On a recent school day in Fresno, Fernando Valero repaired a 32,000-pound diesel truck with failed sensors. Then he crawled under another truck before lifting it with a floor jack. The morning school work left his hands black from grease.
And his day was just getting started.
After lunch, Valero left Duncan Polytechnical High School and headed to a job where he’s paid as a regular employee. Much like his classroom labor, he works with technicians fixing trucks for local customers.
There is a good chance the 17-year-old high school senior will keep his job after he graduates in June. School officials say that’s the goal.
About a decade after a recession nearly crippled the nation’s economy and devastated the job market in California’s Central Valley, the region is still trying to pick itself up. But many education leaders hope that efforts to attract new businesses and train workers for skilled jobs are starting to work.
Valero is part of the 45 percent of Fresno Unified School District students who take part in career and technical programs, including medical, manufacturing and heavy-duty trucking. The pathways expose students to real-world industry work, and some, like Valero, are finding jobs while in school.
Jeremy Ward, executive officer for college and career readiness at Fresno Unified, said students who take part in career pathways consistently have a better graduation rate than students outside the programs. He said it’s because the pathway programs at each of the high schools are designed to satisfy student interest and the needs of Central Valley industries.
Most importantly, Ward said, the pathways offer students an invaluable opportunity: work experience and skills.
“It doesn’t take much to see how this benefits students who are in poverty, because it is providing them all those experiences,” he said. “It’s providing them all of that knowledge. It’s providing them real skills they can be able to take after high school to do something with it.”
The program is part of a district-wide effort. Several other Central Valley schools have developed their own career pathways. Cara Jurado, a pathway coordinator at Duncan High School, said partnerships among schools, industry and the state have led to increased investment in improving schools.
“We’re in one of the lowest socioeconomic areas in town. Data shows that students from this area don’t tend to go on to high-paying jobs and that’s not right,” Jurado said. “We wanted to create opportunities.”
During school breaks, Valero is one of the few students who work eight-hour paid days. That has helped him gain knowledge and confidence from experienced workers, he said.
“If you don’t put in the time and effort, then you won’t be able to go where you want to succeed,” Valero said.
Pathway to success
Thousands of jobs have poured into the Central Valley from large corporate warehouses in recent years. But those jobs don’t always come with high wages. Some have even brought trouble for employees who are injured in intensive manual jobs.
As the Central Valley grows, efforts are underway to diversify industries and protect the economy from another recession. In diversifying and bringing higher-skilled jobs, a young, emerging workforce could prove critical to keeping those jobs local.
Eric Rubio, a heavy-duty trucking instructor at Duncan High, says this is uncharted territory. He said the skills gap is large enough where new technology like self-driving trucks and active-radar tools could overtake lower-skill jobs.
“The older technicians didn’t grow up with that technology. These (younger) guys have the aptitude and the tech-savviness to use diagnostics tools,” Rubio said.
Those changes in the industry require better-educated workers to perform the job, Rubio said.
Skills as currency
Manufacturers are struggling to maintain enough highly skilled workers. But Troy Brandt, general manager of Hydratech and chair of the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance, said local schools training students for industry jobs has helped significantly. Colleges in the valley also have stepped up to provide training.
He said some of his best workers have come directly out of high school.
The shortage of experienced manufacturing workers can cause a shuffle of employees among companies offering better pay. But Brandt said as long as manufacturing continues to be strong, there is an opportunity.
“We wonder why we see so much of the middle class disappearing in this country. I would attribute a lot of that to the loss of manufacturing jobs. These are good paying jobs,” Brandt said.
Adapting to a changing work landscape is a priority for employers as automation and technology improvements will inevitably eliminate many jobs.
A 2019 study from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institution found industries should adapt to automation rather than resisting. The study, which examined about 800 occupations across nearly 100 metropolitan areas, found that automation risks vary across the country.
Almost half of males 24 and younger and underrepresented communities, such as Hispanic workers, typically hold jobs that are vulnerable to automation. The flip side, according to the study, is that automation creates different jobs if workers can learn the necessary technology skills.
“If your skill set loses its currency, then you are in danger,” said Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board. “I think we need to try to figure out where this change is going, and then try to arrange for our residents and our citizens to be able to access training that makes them competitive in whatever environment that change creates.”
Fresno County offers employee training through the New Employment Opportunity program, which helps job seekers maintain jobs and teaches them needed skills that could help them obtain good jobs.
Companies that hire workers through the program get wage reimbursement help from the county if they keep the workers, according to Jenna Lukens, contracts manager with the Fresno County Economic Development Corp.
“This is really to get people off of the public aid system, to get themselves self-sufficient for them and their families,” she said.
Economic leaders in the Central Valley say that warehouse work may not be a silver bullet, despite the jobs it provides. An array of occupations is part of building a resilient economy so residents are not dependent on a single industry.
After the recession caused havoc because of a lack of occupational diversity, many valley cities struggled to recover. In Clovis, the City Council had an ambitious plan to bring multinational tech companies to the city. But the recession put a strain on those plans.
A decade later, those plans have slowly materialized. A large medical complex has sprouted in northeast Clovis, next to empty lots that also await new development, according to Andrew Haussler, community and economic development director for Clovis.
“The beautiful thing about health care is that it provides stable jobs that are relatively recession-resilient,” Haussler said.
The medical complex includes plans for the first medical school in the valley, where there is a high need for medical experts. It’s expected to enroll the first class of students in August.
Recent efforts by state legislators have also advanced goals set by Clovis leaders, including offering two years of free community college to eligible students.
“When you talk about opportunity … you can go from Clovis High to Clovis Community College … you can transfer straight into California Health Sciences University and have your doctorate in pharmacy in five years,” Haussler said. “That’s how we truly grow economically. This is really a regional investment.”
‘A completely different place’
The Fresno metropolitan area has outpaced large areas like Los Angeles in economic growth since 2005, according to data from the Fresno County Economic Development Corp. The biggest industries in the Fresno area are crop production and food manufacturing.
But tech has in recent years created a buzz, with Bitwise Industries and other software companies that have moved into the Valley. With a growing medical field and a stronger focus to train workers in industries like manufacturing, conditions could improve for the Valley, says Amanda Bosland, client services manager with the Fresno County Economic Development Corp.
The development corporation and several other organizations have been working on ways to attract new business opportunities to the valley. That has led to the creation of the Central Valley Global Trade and Investment Plan, which was developed as part of the Global Cities Initiative from the Brookings Institution and JP Morgan Chase. The plan recognized the Valley as an “up and coming” region for the state’s economic development.
“I would gamble, in the next five to 10 years, Fresno is going to be a completely different place,” Bosland said.
The plan outlined ways the valley can improve low incomes and unemployment and also suggested stronger global engagement, something Bosland views as critical.
“While poverty is a problem, it also means we have a large population hungry for something new,” Bosland said. “It’s not easy work, and it’s pretty slow work, but it’s being done.”
* Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a reporter with The Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.