Task force matches SLO County employers with workers



SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. – May 22, 2020 –

San Luis Obispo County’s economy faces a mismatch between employers and its workforce as companies look to reopen, spurring new upskilling and retraining efforts by business and education experts.

Representatives from regional colleges and universities, the Workforce Development Board and nonprofits like the Economic Vitality Corporation and SLO Partners have launched a task force to connect employers with talent and guide idled workers into sectors that are seeing a strong rebound.

“We really need to be vigilant on where people are going to fall through the cracks and be left without options,” Matthew Green, director of workforce economic development and community programs at Cuesta College, said on a roundtable call between the Task Force and the Business Times.

Some 97.5 percent of businesses in the county have 50 or fewer employees, and a disproportionately high number of those are sole proprietorships, posing unique challenges for the regional economy. As such, they may not qualify or have the capacity to access standard resources like Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Paycheck Protection Program funds, said Dawn Boulanger, director of the Workforce Development Board for SLO County.

“We are a hugely driven small business, entrepreneurial community; those businesses are seeing the least amount of support,” Boulanger said.

Top industries in the county, including hospitality and education itself, are among those that saw the heaviest impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic response and will likely take longer to rebound. That puts pressure on county tax revenues and those organizations that rely on county funding.

As companies prepare to reopen, the jobs that return may not match up perfectly with the ones that existed prior to the onset of the crisis, Boulanger said.

“Employers know there may be more talent in the pool, and they may take that opportunity, which totally shifts our workforce from the under 3 percent economy we were in where folks with some barriers or needing some training did stand a chance and were getting closer to the front of the line,” she said.

Industries like manufacturing, agriculture and social services have begun to ramp up their activities. In response, the task force has worked to connect them with qualified talent and retrain workers to fill those new roles, said Eileen Buecher, executive director of career services at Cal Poly SLO.

But as recreation, food service and retail businesses prepare to do the same, they may decide to operate at a reduced capacity, and workers may find themselves forced to reapply for their old positions or take on new ones, Boulanger said.

The Workforce Development Board has launched skills assessments for job seekers to see where and how they line up with employer needs and open job postings.

From there, education partners like Cal Poly SLO, Cuesta and SLO Partners can design curriculum and boot camps to fill in training gaps, which can range from apprenticeships and internships to online and in-person classes or even on-the-job training.

“It gives us more ways to solve the problem than just one of our programs trying to tackle it alone,” Boulanger said.

In the longer term, there is little evidence of contraction in sectors like automotive tech, electrician and addiction counseling jobs, among many other career and technical programs that remain in high demand for Cuesta, said John Cascamo, dean of workforce and economic development for the college.

“We have the bread and butter programs that really prepare people for jobs that are going to continue to be in demand and pay good wages,” Cascamo said.

Tech firms have even gotten involved in retraining programs, said SLO Partners Director Paula Fryer. One introductory class offered by computer networking and IT firm Clever Ducks in partnership with national trade association CompTIA garnered 100 sign-ups for a new month-long course offering, helping the company source and train new tech talent as networks see even higher demand during the shutdown.

“What’s happened with this COVID situation is that we’ve accelerated what probably would have taken another 10 years and now they’ve been forced into technology upskilling,” said Gayla Jurevich, regional director for business and entrepreneurship at Cuesta.

The efforts follow the relaunch of an economic dashboard by the EVC in late 2019 tracking the region’s industry clusters and an Employer-Talent Connection portal created in April.

The shift may also free up a tight market for office space for early-stage startups and small businesses, said EVC President and CEO Michael Manchak, as well as expand “rural sourcing” efforts by firms to bring on new remote workers outside their core operations.

While virtual access still poses a challenge, “we have more resources than we had during the last recession,” said Manchak. Helping workers discover what jobs and companies are available “has always been the biggest challenge in our region.”