New bill aims to target Valley’s persistent unemployment rate

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Assembymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) describes the purpose of A.B. 1111, “Breaking Barriers to Employment” Friday, March 31, in El Centro. Photo by Brett Miller.

EL CENTRO — After acknowledging Imperial County as one of California’s top contenders for high unemployment rates, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) introduced A.B. 1111 Friday morning at the Imperial County administration center. The bill aims to “break barriers to employment” though increased funding of workforce development programs.

“A.B. 1111 attempts to address these hardest hit areas in the State of California,” said Garcia. “We are asking for $100 million dollars to be focused in places of California that fit this profile.”

The bill will establish a competitive grant program to provide workforce assistance and aims to leverage community-based organizations to create training and employment opportunities. According to Garcia, the bill focuses on providing job development to those who are hardest to reach, such as veterans, single parents, seniors, and English-language learners.

“Colusa County and Imperial County: we compete for the number one place for the highest unemployment in the state of California,” said Garcia.

The U.S. Department of Labor cites a 19.6% unemployment rate in January 2017 for Imperial County, and 23.6% for Colusa County, disregarding seasonal adjustments. The state average was 5.5% for that same period. Though unemployment in the state has declined in recent years, Garcia argued particular areas like Imperial County continued to struggle.

“The community-based organization component is what’s actually going to be a very critical part in reaching folks who traditionally are not walking through the doors of our workforce investment boards,” said Garcia, who hopes the de-centralized approach will result in a wider reach.

Funding for the bill could come from California’s General Funds as well as state and federal revenue sources such as cap-and-trade auction revenues. The grants would assist programs that will help the state reach its ten-year goal of creating one million “middle-skill” industry-recognized postsecondary credentials.

“In a sense, the money is coming to a local level, where it should be used,” said Tim Kelley, chairman of the Imperial County Workforce Development Board.

Attrition of the Imperial County’s workforce due to retirement and the loss of jobs due to mechanization in central industries such as agriculture will prompt an increased need for job training programs for those who are unemployed as well as to serve companies looking for skilled workers.

“It is imperative that California continues to remain at the forefront of workforce development in this nation,” agreed Miguel Figueroa, director of Imperial County’s Workforce Development.

Garcia noted the high level of interest from renewable energy companies looking to establish themselves in the Imperial Valley might be affected by the availability of experienced local labor.

“I would imagine the first question is: do we have the skilled labor force?” suggested Garcia.

Controlled Thermal Resources, an Australian-based renewable energy company, plans to build the nation’s largest geothermal plant in the Imperial Valley, with operation beginning as early as 2020.

Garcia indicated that the bill currently enjoys bipartisan support. A.B. 1111 lists Assemblymembers Marc Steinorth (R-Rancho Cucamonga) and Brian Maienschein (R-San Diego) as among its seven authors. If passed, grants could be awarded beginning in the coming 2018 fiscal year.