IMPERIAL COUNTY — With unemployment in Imperial County constantly in double-digit numbers —and usually the highest in California — workforce development agencies are working to adapt to this new COVID-laden outbreak landscape.
“When (COVID) first hit back in March we were very concerned that we could see the unemployment rate hit 30-to-40-percent because we are usually, at any given time of the year, unfortunately, one of the highest, if not the highest, unemployment rate in the Nation,” said County Workforce & Economic Development Director Priscilla A. Lopez.
“We did see a jump between February 20th to March 20th (2020), but I think it hit close to 28 percent when it should have, historically, hit 15-to-16-percent,” she said.
The unemployment rate in 2020 shot up from “normal” Imperial County highs of 17 percent in February to 28.1 percent in April 2020, with a small decline from May, June, and July, ranging from 27.7-to-27.0-percent, according to a press release from the Employment Development Department
“The unemployment rate now is … in all honesty, isn't as shocking as we thought it was going to be,” she said. “As bad as it is, we could've been much, much worse … but there's so many factors from our area that inhibit us.”
Lopez said workforce development partnering agencies have been meeting more frequently since the pandemic hit to try and “see what we have to offer or let us know how we can make our services more efficient, more equitable, and more accessible to all.”
“For last year in January 2020, pre-pandemic we had over 200 leads — people who either walking through our doors, contacted us through Facebook, or reached out through our recruiter ... this past January 2021 we had a little bit over 30, so it's a huge, huge gap,” said Elvira Anaya, Center for Employment Training (CET) Center director and CET Regional director III.
Anaya said the quarantine shutdowns of 2020 on in-person community events has hampered CET program enrollment numbers due to their program recruiter not being able to get out to the public in-person to get the word out on their training programs.
"The high schools didn’t have their senior day, the college didn't have their transition fairs, Behavioral Health didn't have any of their health events — everyone closed throughout the community,” she said. “That went away and so did our leads."
Because of the shutdowns on public events, Anaya said people who receive their services were unaware about her workforce agency's re-opening last year due to the continued lack of opportunities for public exposure for their programs.
Anaya also said the recent three-month stop on behind-the-wheel driving tests at the California Department of Motor Vehicles put a hard brake on not only their truck driving students’ driver’s tests, but also job placements for employers looking for hires to fill their drivers’ seats.
“(The DMV shutdown) created a huge backlog,” she said. “(Now) they're calling back all of those appointments they canceled to reschedule those first and then allow for new appointments.”
“I'm sure they're going to bring testing inspectors from outside the area to fulfill that so we're waiting to see how that's going to go,” she said, “but we've been preparing our students to get them ready. They're so anxious, they've been waiting a long, long time."
“Right now, everything is turned on its head,” Lopez said.
Even with the reluctance from some students, both agency leaders said they have been soldiering on, continuously working on adapting and changing with the COVID times.
Anaya said CET had to change their program models from 80 percent hands on and 20 percent virtual, to 80 percent virtual and 20 percent hands on, adopting a hybrid schedule and staggered, in-person teaching at a maximum of three hours in addition taking all the necessary COVID precautions.
“Students have responded really positively to it,” she said. “We just had a student survey and they're very happy that we had the hands on and they're asking for more but until we are able to fully re-open, we won't be able to grant them that, and they understood that, so we're looking forward to just getting more people in.”
Lopez said County Workforce Development and their America’s Job Centers are looking at offering more digital micro-training videos to fill digital learner gaps on software such as Zoom, Microsoft Word and Excel, as well as revamping their website “to be able to offer a more virtual experience to the community.”
Lopez said continued study in local industry trends will continue to help workforce development partners “get in front of what the training needs are for our local businesses so we can create the job bank foundation and make it firm and robust.”
“We're crossing our fingers and hoping that, as this starts to open up, the economy and the jobs will come back quickly,” Lopez said. “It's been a whirlwind.”