Business

Saturday, Nov 06 2010 09:30 PM

Bakersfield area struggles to woo professionals

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Gianna and Ken Beurmann are CSUB graduates who decided to pursue their careers in Bakersfield. They were meeting for lunch at Mercy Southwest hospital where Gianna works.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART, Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

By almost all accounts, Kern County's economic development has a daunting Catch-22 to overcome.

The kinds of employers that hire highly paid white-collar professionals are reluctant to come here, lamenting our relative lack of people with college degrees. Meanwhile, our college grads insist there are no jobs here and often leave the market to find work.

Related Info

Bachelor's degree or higher, age 18 and older

Bakersfield

17 percent

Kern County

16.7 percent

California

37.7 percent

United States

36.9 percent

Source: 2009 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau

About 17 percent of Kern County adults hold a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 38 percent of adults statewide and 37 percent nationally.

More than half of the region's gross domestic product derives from blue-collar jobs. The recession put a glaring spotlight on the need to mix that up. The heavy reliance on construction, for instance, helped send the local economy screeching to a halt when building slowed.

Even before the recession, efforts were under way to combat brain drain and reshape Bakersfield's earning power. There's been headway, advocates say, but more work needs to be done.

A lot more.

"There have been some successes, but it's still difficult to recruit those white-collar businesses because of the fact that we have half of the statewide average in bachelor's degrees," said Sheryl Barbich, president of Greater Bakersfield Vision 2020.

That was a behemoth multidiscipline volunteer effort to evaluate where the area stood in 2000 on everything from economic development to cultural offerings and set goals for where the community would like to be 20 years hence.

It's been 10 years since the initial effort began, so the organization recently completed a halfway point update of its report, which is available online at www.bakersfieldvision2020.com.

Courting professional jobs

There's been a lot more progress on the educational front than on the economic development side. That's an investment that will be valuable in the long run, but may take years to pay dividends.

The Kern County Economic Development Corp. is targeting its recruitment efforts on value-added agriculture, business and professional services, energy and health care. But its biggest push and highest level of growth is in the transportation, logistics, warehousing and manufacturing sector, where decent wages are attainable without a college degree.

That's not a bad strategy when you consider potential earnings, said KEDC president and chief executive officer Richard Chapman.

"The question is, how, exactly, do you define 'white collar?'" he said. "Somebody in a call center is technically sitting in an office, but those jobs don't usually pay very well, whereas manufacturing, logistics and distribution jobs can start upwards of $20 an hour. Sometimes the labeling isn't as important as the pay."

That isn't to say the group has given up on wooing cubicles. The Kern Economic Development Foundation is in the process of raising money for demographic and economic research to support recruitment efforts.

"There really aren't many people studying central California, and what little is out there is skewed or out of date," said foundation chairman Barry Hibbard. "We need better research on ourselves that offers a truer picture of the environment here. If nobody else will do it, we'll do it ourselves."

Gains in education

The effort to cultivate a better educated work force has made more strides.

It targets all age groups, from Ready to Start -- a seven-year-old program designed to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten -- to adults in college.

One of the biggest successes has been the actual number of schools here.

Bakersfield College, founded in 1913, is one of the nation's oldest community colleges, but we didn't have an accredited four-year university until Cal State Bakersfield opened 40 years ago. Its efforts have since been bolstered by a bunch of national and regional chains entering the market, most within the last dozen years or so. Among others the city now boasts a Fresno Pacific University, Kaplan College, University of La Verne, University of Phoenix, Point Loma Nazarene University, and most recently DeVry University, which opened in 2007.

There's been broad collaboration between business and education leaders to upgrade the skills of tomorrow's workers through internship and mentoring programs.

Initiatives include The Alliance of Women in Energy's mentoring program to expose high school girls to math, science and energy sector careers; Chevron's Students Training For Achievement, Reward, and Success, or STARS, a program designed to expose "high potential, low opportunity" high school students to professional career paths; and Aera Energy's MS3 program in partnership with South High School's math and science academy. The energy company also sponsors the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement, or MESA, program at Bakersfield College.

The thinking is that once the work force is upgraded, it will be easier to attract high quality employers, said Cathi Guerrer, executive director of Bakersfield Business Network.

"I think we're taking the 'if you build it, they will come' strategy," she said. "Once we have the education and skills to get them here, they'll see that we're a good, family-friendly location for employers."

Home grown employers

If all else fails, the city can try growing its own companies, but that's tough.

The Service Corps of Retired Executives, which counsels aspiring entrepreneurs, says few of its Bakersfield clients have the capital or expertise to turn their dreams into viable businesses.

The capital end of that is a particularly tall hurdle in the Bakersfield area. Local banks are leery of loaning to risky start-ups in a weak economy, and Bakersfield has no venture capital firms and few wealthy individuals (known in business circles as "angel investors") looking to invest in new or early-stage companies.

Prospects for developing entrepreneurial expertise are better, but not great.

The Small Business Development Center network is a national program of the U.S. Small Business Administration serving 1.3 million business owners annually with free consulting and management assistance at more than 1,100 centers nationwide. Until last year, there was a center in Bakersfield, but the Kern Community College District's Business Assistance Center replaced the Weill Institute SBDC last January, in the process changing its mission from working with startups to nurturing existing businesses.

This month the SBDC network announced a new partnership with CSUB to assist both current and prospective small business owners. It's operating with an interim director while a search for a permanent leader gets under way.

The SBDC's 15-county central California region served 1,232 clients last year, creating or retaining about 300 jobs, not all of them professional, said Kern County interim director John Pryor.

Pryor admits that's not exactly explosive job growth, but says it's not reflective of the center's potential. Last year was "a major economic freefall," he said. "What will matter now is how we, within the SBDCs, help turn around these numbers."

Recruiting challenges

In the meantime, the Bakersfield area mostly relies on existing employers for white-collar jobs.

Those companies say the ability to find workers with the right credentials is hit or miss depending on the industry.

Bob Pair, co-owner of Pair & Morotta Physical Therapy, said for him, recruiting involves "crossing your fingers a lot. It's a small pool of physical therapists who are willing to come to Bakersfield."

Industries that have a pipeline of graduates from local schools have an easier time hiring.

Steven Starbuck, personnel partner at local accounting firm Brown Armstrong, said CSUB's Accounting and Finance Department has been a good source.

"We do recruit at other campuses, but we have our best luck with people who have ties to Bakersfield," he said.

There is no law school here, though, so law firms are forced to look outside the market.

David Blaine, a partner at Klein, DeNatale, Goldner, Cooper, Rosenlieb & Kimball, LLP, said his firm prefers employees with a prior connection to Bakersfield because people coming in cold don't stay.

The law firm sponsors a summer internship for high school seniors, many of whom return as clerks.

"The idea is to engage them as early as possible and get them thinking about coming back before they even leave," Blaine said.

An economic mismatch

It's been frustrating that the region's two leading industries -- agriculture and oil -- are also, to a lesser extent, without a local academic pipeline.

There are several private colleges here that are part of national or regional chains, but their degree programs usually are designed to meet the needs of a national pool of students as opposed to the particular demands of Kern County employers.

DeVry University selects its undergraduate and graduate programs after evaluating national job growth projections of the U.S. Department of Labor, said Don Burnard, DeVry University Bakersfield Center dean. But DeVry's degrees are still useful here, Burnard said.

"While DeVry University might not offer degree programs with 'agriculture' or 'oil' in the names, we are the leader in preparing our students to be the accountants, IT consultants and network technicians that keep agriculture and oil companies competitive and in business," he said.

Bakersfield College offers six agriculture-related associate degrees, as well as certificates for certain levels of coursework, but you can't get a bachelor's in any agricultural fields of study in Kern County.

CSUB is putting a toe in the water by creating an agribusiness focus for its longstanding business degree program, and more may be coming.

"We're engaged in conversations with several of the leading agricultural companies in the region and intend to expand the discussions to be as inclusive as possible," said John Emery, dean of CSUB's School of Business and Public Administration. "Many excellent ideas are being fielded and the likely curriculum is developing nicely."

Then there's the oil industry.

CSUB has a petroleum geology program within its Master's in Geology, the only such program at any public university west of the Rockies.

But there's a major void in engineering.

Bakersfield College offers an associate in science degree with engineering courses, but again, there's no local way to get a bachelor's here.

CSUB has wanted an engineering program for years, but the state hesitated to give it the money because nearby programs at Fresno State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo were not at capacity. There is now a small crack in that wall, though. Just this month, CSUB announced it will offer a degree in computer engineering, with classes starting fall 2011.

But it will be a long time before that inroad expands enough to meet the needs of an industry scrambling for engineers of all kinds.

"Many of our engineers come from other areas of California, and we also go to the Colorado School of Mines a lot," said Lorraine Coodey, human resources specialist at Aera Energy.

Working with what you have

State Farm, which employs more than 1,000 people at a regional office in Bakersfield, may have the best short-term solution to its recruiting woes.

It has the resources to recruit all over the country and does, including locally. State Farm human resources representative David Loomis sits on the board of the CSUB Alumni Association.

But Loomis didn't have a degree when he was first hired as a courier for the insurer in 1990. State Farm subsidized his education as he moved up in the company.

"We like to promote from within rather than look for management off the street," Loomis said.

Not everyone will have the right background to start, but if they're really good, State Farm will help them get there.

"I'm an example of that," Loomis said.

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