Tight labor market keeps local employers on their toes

After growing up in Bakersfield and then leaving town to attend college in Ventura County, recent graduate Dakota Allen isn’t sure she wants to come home so soon.

Although she got a job offer in Kern County, she also has solid internships under her belt in both of her academic concentrations — communications and political science — that make her think she should test her mettle in bigger markets.

“There’s not always a ton of options in Bakersfield,” she said.

So goes one of the biggest challenges facing employers in Kern. The cost of living may be low and the culture family-friendly, but with the labor market at historically tight levels, employers across the county often must go to great lengths to attract and retain the help they need.

Local employers and workplace professionals say much progress has been made as industry works ever closer with educational institutions to ensure access to talented grads. And companies report success with initiatives aimed at keeping workers happy in their jobs.

Still, certain positions such as high-level engineering vacancies and nursing jobs remain stubbornly hard to fill. In that regard, the strong national economy has become something of a double-edged sword for local employers.

“The challenge is, how do we get folks with the best skill set to come here or stay here?” said Richard Chapman, president and CEO of Kern Economic Development Corp.

Maximizing limited resources

The dilemma can be especially tough for small businesses with less money to offer job candidates. What they often can do is offer their employees training opportunities they might not have access to elsewhere, said Kelly Bearden, director of Cal State Bakersfield’s Small Business Development Center.

Even that can be difficult, though, because investing time can be just as hard, Bearden said. He recommends companies try to make their benefits packages as attractive as possible.

A dose of realism on the part of recent graduates may be in order, too, said Bakersfield training and development specialist Robin Paggi. Rather than hold out for their dream job, she advises they get straight into a job where they can begin racking up work experience.

Small-city charm

Paggi also warned new grads from assuming a move to the big city is necessarily the right move. Traffic and a hectic lifestyle can take a toll over time.

“That’s one of the things about bigger cities,” she said. “After a while, for a lot of people, the allure wears off and it’s just too much.”

Local businessman and investor John-Paul “JP” Lake asserted that collective action can help turn Bakersfield into a more attractive destination for talented workers. For example, real estate developers can make the downtown area a more enjoyable place to visit or live by continuing to introduce new dining and entertainment options, he said.

Cultural advantages

On the other hand, he said, the city already holds advantages that are worth promoting alongside Kern’s relatively low housing costs. The city’s culture — its family orientation, strong work ethic, compassion and community service — compare favorably with many cities, he said.

“Who doesn’t want all those things in the community where we live?” he said, adding that long term, education will be key to raising the quality of Kern’s workforce.

Local colleges, in addition to reshaping themselves to meet the needs of the region’s employers, have placed a greater emphasis on internships as a way of helping industry.

Valuable internships

Sheri Horn-Bunk, executive director of foundation and institutional advancement at Taft College, said internships are a big part of the school’s efforts to build partnerships with local employers. Companies support the school’s foundation, she said, and in return the college sends them interns.

With that in mind, students would do well to ask school counselors and others as part of their “pre-preparation” for entering the workforce, she said.

“There are (internship) opportunities on almost every college campus,” she said, “and I don’t know if we do a good job telling students about them.”

Related to these opportunities are the hiring relationships some employers have established with local colleges.

Private-public partnership

California Resources Corp., one of the region’s largest oil producers, said it’s proud to employ more than 100 CSUB graduates, Executive Vice President of Operations and Engineering Shawn Kerns said by email. He noted the company also has employed dozens of interns from the university and hired many of its full-time students.

Another local oil producer, Aera Energy LLC, said it has had to think differently about employee recruitment and retention because even though the region’s labor market has tightened somewhat, the national market has become even tighter.

Spokeswoman Cindy Pollard said by email Aera views work environment and sense of purpose as being a primary driver of employee retention.

Staying competitive

Because of that, the company invests in professional development and makes sure its compensation and benefits packages are competitive, she wrote. Aera also makes its vacation and other time-off programs as generous as possible while keeping scheduling flexible, she added.

Chatsworth-based Aera also makes sure to let job applicants know what a beneficial place to live Kern can be.

“We believe Kern County (as well as our other counties) offer a wonderful community to live with easy commutes, great schools, affordable housing and close (proximity) to a lot of great activities that can be enjoyed year-round (mountain hiking/biking, beach, golf),” she noted.

“We sell this to prospective talent,” she continued. “The employees that join us from outside of this region are proud to call this home.”

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