The most recent state unemployment numbers (February 2010) show a number of California counties with unemployment rates soaring near to or over 20%: Imperial, 27.2%, Colusa, 27.6%, Merced, 22%, Tulare, 18.7%, and Fresno, 18.5%.

To an extent these rates are misleading. Even when the state economy is running smoothly, these counties, with significant agricultural employment, have unemployment rates over 10%. With the agricultural base, a level of seasonal unemployment is built into the local economy.

Yet, as Fresno County indicates, the current unemployment even in agricultural counties is a far different situation than in previous years. Tim Sheehan notes in a recent Fresno Bee article that the current unemployment in Fresno County (with a labor force of 441,300, the largest of the agricultural counties) is the highest unemployment rate in 17 years. The total number of unemployed is 81,800, the largest number ever.

What can the Fresno Workforce Investment Board (WIB), the local agency charged with job training and placement, do when unemployment is at 18.5%?

Earlier this week I had opportunity to meet with Blake Konczal, the Executive of the Fresno WIB. Blake is an old hand in job training; he served as director of the San Jose WIB before coming over to head the Fresno WIB eight years ago. He is active in the association of California WIBs, as well as an active presence in state government.

Blake starts by noting that there is no single sector or major employer that is key to job placement in Fresno. The jobs in Fresno, as elsewhere in California, are to be found in placements of ones and twos, not hundreds. Still, even with the high unemployment, there are job openings through both turnover and new job creation.

Construction employment continues its decline of the past three years in Fresno, as does employment in agriculture, due to the water issues. At the same time, the health sector is holding its own, as is education, transportation and power generation, and the Fresno-based water flow technology.

A part of the Fresno WIB effort continues to be operating the One-Stop employment centers, the walk-in centers for job placement assistance. What has changed in the past two years is the sharp increase in training funds to Fresno brought by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Like other WIBs, the Fresno WIB for the first time has substantial money for training vouchers. These vouchers are being used mainly for the training niches, as they occur in small numbers, that the WIB is able to locate.

The niche training includes health care technicians (psychiatric technician, radiation technician), PG&E utility workers, and weatherization techs. It also includes training in a job cluster that has grown up in Fresno: water flow technology. Fresno County and more generally the Central Valley are at the forefront of irrigation and water technology with over 150 water related companies in the Valley. The WIB recently awarded a strategic planning contract to the Claude Laval Water and Energy Technology Incubator and the International Center for Water Technology at CSU, Fresno to further growth of this cluster.

Over the past three decades, unemployment in the Central Valley has been the subject of more reports, studies, and evaluations that you can count. Every Governor during this period has pledged to turn around the Valley economies, with very little impact.

In the end, the one investment that finally will turn things around in the Valley is the California High Speed Rail network, that (finally) will link the Valley economy to the rest of the state. Blake is already on High Speed Rail for its direct and indirect job generation, though the bulk of the construction jobs are a few years away. In the meantime, he and the Fresno WIB continue the slower process of identifying individual job placements and training niches.