Minoli Ratnatunga
Director, Regional Economics Research, Center for Regional Economics
California and Human Capital and Indexes & Rankings and Job Creation and Regional Economics
Minoli Ratnatunga is director of regional economics research at the Milken Institute's Center for Regional Economics, where she focuses on regional economic development and regional competitiveness.
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Looking for innovative partnerships to grow a skilled workforce? Try Kern County

By: Minoli Ratnatunga
March 13, 2015

When it comes to bridging the skills gap, collaboration is the new competition. In our recent study of Kern County, California, we learned how communities in its resource-rich economy are working together to develop the skilled workforce needed to promote sustainable economic growth.

In the past, companies harvesting fruit or drilling for oil may not have needed to invest heavily in human capital. Many jobs in natural resource-rich economies typically required low-skill, low-wage labor. Yet innovations in plant science and the mechanization of labor-intensive processes have led to increased productivity, and with it, an increasing need for more skilled workers, especially in the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Agricultural companies in Kern and the greater San Joaquin Valley are collaborating with each other and with local educational institutions to leverage public, private and philanthropic funds. The purpose is to narrow the skills gap by preparing local talent, starting with high school. One result is the Paramount Agriculture Career Academy, a regional partnership that includes a high school in the Kern city of Delano, along with two others in the San Joaquin Valley. Through the academy, participating Kern high school students can earn credits from Bakersfield College in industry aligned curricula, with the programs designed so that students can complete an associate degree within one semester of their high school graduation or go on to a four-year degree. Not only are the programs focused on high-skill agriculture occupations with jobs connected to them, they also provide students with a head-start on getting an advanced degree.

Beyond the academy, Bakersfield College has a long track record of working closely with the private sector to equip students with in-demand skills that lead to good jobs. Yet, an associate degree is no longer enough for a large number of positions in manufacturing, agriculture, oil and logistics. Many managerial or technical positions in STEM fields like logistics or manufacturing go unfilled each year and require a four-year degree. To address this gap, Bakersfield College will now begin offering students a bachelor’s degree in industrial automation. This program aims to locally fill the more than 200 jobs with median earnings of $85,000 which remain vacant each year in Kern’s key industries. 

California State University, Bakersfield is also another important regional asset to help grow and retain a bachelors-level workforce, especially in hard to fill STEM positions. The co-op for credit program at CSUB’s department of physics and engineering links students with employers to help them gain practical, real-world experience in their respective fields. Additionally at CSUB, Chevron has partnered with Fab Foundation, a nonprofit spawned by an MIT-sponsored innovation project, to create a Fab Lab that provides project-based learning for students to acquire problem-solving skills in STEM fields.   

These, and other, initiatives to increase the skills of the county workforce will help Kern’s core natural resource industries, and create more general prosperity  as the county’s industrial base continues to diversify and innovate.