BlueWolf: Exploring business and workforce issues

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Ever since I first came to Lake County, almost 37 years ago, I have heard discussions on how to bring businesses to Lake County that will provide decent jobs for the next generations so they don’t have to relocate to more urbanized areas. Many of the better professional jobs in government and service are being snapped up, in a highly competitive job market, by people moving away from those same urban areas looking to escape and raise their children in a safer environment.


The age-old model revolved primarily around manufacturing and service oriented opportunities. Manufacturing of products has always been a tough sell here due to the isolated nature of the County and transportation costs and issues. The perception of isolation may be a greater hindrance than the reality but certainly gas prices haven’t helped. The size and weight of product also bears on this issue. There have been examples of successful manufacturing in Lake County, but not many.


One of the other issues we face is demographic in nature. We have a large percentage of elderly in our workforce not capable of enduring the rigors of manufacturing or service-related jobs. Also, as a former employer, I can testify to the difficulty of getting employees that are dependable and motivated.


While it is true that our wages fall to the low side, and some of our employers would be better suited to the 18th century sweat shop age, we still have a sizable number of work age people with dependency problems and a general inability to show up on time or at all and give a good day’s work.


The whys on that I’ll leave to the sociologists. The point is, we suffer from having a reputation as a county that does not have a highly dependable, well-trained work force. That hurts when it comes to attracting manufacturing or large service employers. And the reasons many of them may consider us our low wage scale is not something we’d like to emphasize as we try to raise wages and benefits for Lake County employees.


We know that small businesses form the nucleus of Lake County prosperity, along with tourism of course, but where the potential for economic growth really lies is at the heart of the discussion. I thought some County labor statistics might spark the conversation.


Manufacturing in Lake County accounts for only 2 percent of our workforce. Government provides the most substantial opportunities, accounting for 30 percent, however the turnover is less as these represent a significant number of the cush jobs here, offering retirement, benefits, holidays, relatively high salaries, etc.


The tourist industry is definitely large, representing 11 percent, but wreaks havoc on families due to pressures to work weekends, holidays and non-traditional shifts. With these kinds of schedules it’s difficult for families to schedule events where they can be together.


Education and health jobs represent a large percentage of our workforce at 14 percent. These jobs also represent some of the better long-term opportunities and we are certain to see an increase in these areas locally as our population ages and grows.


Trade, transportation and utilities account for 19% of our business this includes agriculture and retail of course.


Construction and Information both account for less than one percent of our workforce. The latter is an area where significant growth could occur if we commit to creating a reliable and advanced infrastructure.


Lake County comes in at providing almost $8,000 less per year per capita income for its citizens than the California average. This is one of the statistics that has to change if we want our kids to remain here. More than 1,000 of our workers commute to Mendocino County to work and a total of 22 percent of our available workforce commutes to other counties for employment. Even more interesting, six percent of our workforce comes into Lake County from other counties to work!


One of the more alarming statistics is the projections for growth that may lie ahead. When my family first came to Lake County there were less than 40,000 residents. By 2020, that is expected to double to 80,000. Expectations run at about 1,000 new residents per year to increase the load on our schools and services, transportation and roads, health and government services, and of course our workforce.


Unless Lake County sets benchmarks for controlling this influx, these immigrating citizens many with high levels of education and transferable skills seeking to escape metropolis will suck up the better jobs or, at the very least, increase the highly competitive circumstances we already have. Do we want to have 110,000 residents by 2050?


Just as a side anecdote for one receptionist position at a local doctor’s office, more than 150 applications were accepted. One of the local casinos had more than 300 applicants nationwide for a general manager position. One of the Geysers postings looking for eight to 16 positions had well over 300 applicants. County positions routinely have 60 or more initial applicants. So our workforce is struggling to find jobs with benefits and commensurate salaries.


A living wage enough to support a worker with rent, fuel, food and basics, is now defined at $15 per hour. Lake County citizens know from experience that the number of local jobs that pay that wage are few and far between. That’s why there are so many families working two or three jobs to make ends meet, and so many falling behind or living under poverty standards without benefits or retirement. To compound that problem, more employers are hiring workers at less than full-time so they can avoid costs of benefits.


Ultimately we still suffer from that traditional early industrial viewpoint of “us versus them” when it comes to employee-employer relationships. We need a thorough education program for our businesses and our workforce to encourage a different perspective. We need more, not less, commitment from both groups to understanding each others needs and problems.


For employers, it shouldn’t be how much can we get for the least cost from our employees it should be what can we do to enhance our employees lives and families, reward them for enthusiastic participation, increase their motivation and help them realize that their quality of work affects us all.


Similarly, employees need to realize that employers need dependable, sober and motivated workers not looking for an easy buck. In a small community, which we still are, we are all interdependent, and the more we look after each other even in business the more attractive staying here will be for our youth.


So what kind of future do we want to encourage here? Information and green technology holds significant promise, with above-average earnings and tremendous growth potential if we have the technological communications infrastructure to support it.


Agriculture still has significant promise if we capture the higher net profit organics market and encourage our local citizens to support that economy by buying locally grown produce and products if only because they’re better for our children’s health. But where will these farm workers come from? There aren’t a lot of Lake County citizens prepared to do this kind of work who aren’t doing it already. Farming isn’t easy but if the wage were high enough it certainly would be an area for expansion for business and workforce especially small farm co-ops. Lake County citizens would have to buy into supporting them but if the products were good, I think that would happen.


Manufacturing growth shouldn’t be excluded from our plan just be well-planned and prepared for. The manufacturing of green products and materials could hold significant promise because green business owners often are as influenced by environment and atmosphere as much as bottom line.


Just as Silicon Valley became a center for computer technologies, Lake and Mendocino counties could host an international green business revolution. Someone needs to be doing the work of developing the contact lists and liaison activities that are required for this type of marketing and outreach to encourage new green businesses to consider Lake County as their primary location. Once again, for this to happen our communications infrastructure must be as technologically advanced as possible.


Bottom line is that Lake County has tremendous potential. We have some problems both with the habits, training and motivation of our workforce and with the attitudes and practices of some of our employers. If we don’t want new citizens coming in to take the cream of the jobs away from our kids workforce development and business relations needs to rise to the top of our priorities.


There’s a lot that needs to be done and the agencies given this responsibility from state and federal programs are so hamstrung by paperwork and lack of funding that many of them are competing to offer identical redundant services. A comprehensive and easily accessed pool of Lake County residents looking for work is non-existent. Employers need to take the initiative to educate themselves as to the most effective ways to motivate and re-energize their workers.


A little profit sacrificed today to improve relations, hold better employees and improve benefits and conditions could make the difference in their bottom line tomorrow.


I look forward to the conversation.


James BlueWolf in an artist and author. He lives in Nice.


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