California’s statewide unemployment rate is 7.3%, as of October 2014. That’s driven by low unemployment on the coasts – Orange County is at 5.4% – but many places, including the Central Valley, are still facing higher rates. Fresno County had a 9.5% unemployment rate as of September 2014 – and that was the first time in six years the rate had been below 10%.
So the high speed rail project will provide a welcome boost to job creation in a place that desperately needs it. The Bay Area’s KQED recently traveled to Fresno and talked to job seekers getting ready to build the rails:
More than 100 people, most of them out of work, packed a community center in the rural farming town of Orange Cove recently for a workshop on how to get jobs building the nation’s first high-speed rail train.
When the California High-Speed Rail Authority project — which breaks ground Jan. 6 in Fresno — starts laying down track, it will need ironworkers, laborers, cement masons, carpenters and more….
But some Central Valley residents see the promise of rail construction jobs as a pathway out of poverty. The idea of building something that will last appeals to Ruben Galvez, an unemployed farmworker who is at the Fresno County workshop.
“There’s not too much work here in the Central Valley,” he says. “It’s a lot of agriculture base, so maybe this will take people out of the fields and maybe give them a steadier job. Instead of working six months out of the year, they’ll be able to work, you know, the whole year.”
That’s a key point that Galvez makes. Fresno County’s unemployment fluctuates seasonally, following the schedule of the farms, and that makes life more difficult for anyone living in the region. A more stable employment pattern benefits not only workers, but businesses too.
The California High Speed Rail Authority has been working hard to get those jobs to the people who need it the most:
“We have the single-largest public infrastructure project in the history of the state of California coming through the poorest parts of our state,” says Blake Konczal, director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board. He lobbied hard for the agreement and estimates that, at the peak of construction, it will help a minimum of 5,000 workers get hired — and these jobs pay well for the Central Valley. But first, people have to be trained.
“This is the sheet metal workers union hall and classroom. We’re sort of turning it into a working university here,” says Pat Barr. She runs the workforce’s pre-apprenticeship program, which introduces candidates to different trades and tutors them in math and communication skills….
Patrick McCarthy, 33, recently finished the program and now has an apprenticeship with the laborers union, making $22 an hour plus benefits. Before this training, he couldn’t find a decent-paying job because of a prison record for burglary. But now he’s busy prepping the ground for the rail line.
“I’m working on the potholing for them right now,” says McCarthy. “That’s where we find the utilities buried in the ground, so excavators don’t hit them.”
$22/hr plus benefits is fantastic, and will provide a big boost to Fresno County – while providing people like McCarthy with a steady income that can prevent him from going back to prison. The region gets jobs and growth, California gets a train, and everyone is safer as well.
The KQED story ends by noting that a lot of workers are waiting for groundbreaking, now scheduled for January, when jobs will start picking up in a big way. Fresno County is about to get a shot in the arm economically, one it desperately needs.
Of course, the Valley’s Republican legislators oppose all of this. They don’t want these workers to have jobs. They don’t want businesses to have customers. They don’t want new economic growth. They would rather keep the Valley in poverty just to please their extremist base and their right-wing funders by killing high speed rail.
Thankfully for the working people of the Central Valley, the state government is moving ahead with high speed rail.