The future for California workers lies in education

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A key solution to California's labor market problems is more diverse, accessible – and more lucrative – training programs that begin as early as high school, several labor market experts said today.

“We have a lot of opportunities in California, but we need to make sure we have a well-prepared and ready labor market,” says Cesar Lara, director of workforce and economic development at the California Labor Federation.

Lara spoke on a panel at the CalMatters Ideas Festival that addressed the need for better career pathways to strengthen the state's economy. While everyone agreed that apprenticeships are a critical way to connect workers to well-paying jobs, they also pointed to a number of barriers that prevent some people – particularly women and low-income people – from obtaining those apprenticeships.

Money and childcare are major challenges. While some apprenticeship programs are well-paid, many are not. Those who want to enter the education field, for example, must pay for the work experience required for employment.

“We've figured out how to pay electricians and plumbers while they're training, but we expect teachers to work for free. That's a problem,” said Adele Burnes, deputy director of the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards, during the panel discussion moderated by Levi Sumagaysay, business reporter at CalMatters.

Apprenticeship programs should offer flexible work hours or child care subsidies, Burnes said, to help more women get well-paying jobs. Although the number of women is increasing, they are severely underrepresented in construction apprenticeships.

Parina Parikh, vice president of the nonprofit Jobs for the Future, said employers need to expand their scope in recruiting workers for well-paying jobs and apprenticeship programs. Employers should consider waiving the college degree requirement for some positions and offering jobs, apprenticeships and training opportunities to people with criminal records.

With California's economic growth, the need for strong training programs in the trades and beyond is critical, especially for those who have historically been excluded from these jobs, says Megan Nazareno, senior program and data manager for the Construction Trades Workforce Initiative.

“There is currently a large discrepancy between labor supply and demand,” she said. “But for disadvantaged populations it is even greater. … We need to change that.”

Near Sacramento, Sutter Health has partnered with a local community college to train students for careers as nursing assistants, paramedics, radiology technicians and other health care professions.

The trigger was a plethora of hard-to-fill positions and no relief in sight, said Keri Thomas, Sutter's vice president of external relations, who spoke on a second panel. More than 20 percent of Sutter's workforce is over 56, she said, and while the need is growing, not enough young people are pursuing careers in health care.

To stimulate student interest, Sutter awards scholarships to Folsom Lake College in Folsom that cover tuition as well as books and equipment, pays students during their clinical training, and has funded a training center where students can learn practical skills.

The effort begins long before students reach college, an approach that has proven effective in other areas as well. In addition to promoting dual-enrollment programs with local high schools, Sutter also visits middle schools — “planting the seed” by visiting classrooms and taking middle school students on field trips to Sutter hospitals.

The partnership has opened up careers in health care to countless low-income students who otherwise could not afford them, said Art Pimentel, president of Folsom Lake College. More than 20% of Folsom Lake students are the first in their family to attend college, and more than 60% of them are low-income.

“We believe college is for everyone, but not everyone needs a 4-year degree,” Pimentel said. “You can get a 1-year certificate from Folsom Lake College and make $30, $40, or even $50 an hour.”