When it comes to U.S. cities struggling to get to steady footing after last decade’s recession, Detroit took the national spotlight after filing for bankruptcy in 2013. And rightfully so — it was the biggest municipal bankruptcy in the country’s history.
But a year before, San Bernardino, California, filed for its own Chapter 9 protection, with $45 million in debt that crippled its economic outlook. Four years later, the city of 200,000 is now embroiled in the longest Chapter 9 process in recent U.S. history, and last year it gutted its Employment and Training Agency partially to help it climb further out of the hole.
San Bernardino County announced in December it would step in to take on the workforce development roll. Reg Javier, the county’s deputy executive officer for workforce and economic development, says he thinks this will actually make his work — and the efforts of the region’s job programs — a lot more impactful.
Prior to this, the city and the county ran two different workforce programs, reaching two different parts of the city’s population, and backed by two different funding streams from the federal government. “It created a sort of donut hole in the middle of the county,” he says, referring to their lack of reach in the city.
The county has one of its federally funded American Jobs Centers in Valley View, at the southern cusp of the city. But the city’s is located right in the heart of San Bernardino, meaning the county found it was taking in a lot of job-hunting residents from south of downtown.
“Now we’ll be able to really look for a new site that serves the city but is also tasked with serving the outer areas,” says Javier. “And throw real resources at it, in a city that really, really needs more services than we can currently deliver.”
He says they still haven’t pinned down where a new site will be, but in the meantime, city residents can now seek services at both locales. And since the transition started last summer, after the city agency closed, Javier’s office reports it has already given jobs to 99 San Bernardino residents.
As part of the transition, the San Bernardino County’s Workforce Investment Board will now expand its youth services program into the city, build a new career training series with local public schools, host a job fair, and start building up relationships with local businesses — some of the main employers that have benefited from the county’s workforce efforts in the past.
The San Bernardino metropolitan area had a 5.2 percent unemployment rate as of December 2016, according to state of California data that also looked at unemployment in nearby cities Ontario and Riverside. That’s just slightly above California’s unemployment rate of 5 percent, and the country’s 4.5 percent.
But the city has been reported as one of the poorest cities in the state of California — if not the poorest in Southern California. And minorities suffer unemployment and poverty rates at higher rates than their white counterparts.
While he can’t speak to the performance of San Bernardino’s now-defunct employment agency, Javier does know that the county was recognized by the state for having one of the most effective programs in California. Branching out to cover the entire county, instead of just the fringe areas of its biggest city, means they’ll be able to coordinate without worrying about the services overlap they saw between the south job center and the downtown one.
“It just makes complete sense to have a contiguous system that has a unified strategy on how it’s going to serve its job,” he says.
The transition process, given its freshness, will still need some time before it fully wraps up. But the county is about to debut a series of requests-for-proposals, aimed at local community groups and organizers, to contract out its city-based youth services programs.
Javier remembers the glimpses of success he saw prior to this merger, and going forward is eager to bring it down to the city level. There was the drug user who came into a workforce program one day to take the place of his absent friend, and ended up sticking with the program for months before landing a job.
Then there was the small business owner who petitioned the county’s workforce investment board to start rolling out job-training services like those she’d heard about from local fliers and employers — only to learn that the county was the very one rolling out the services that impressed her. She then took advantage of those programs, and says the workforce development board helped her save $10,000 by handling all the training and recruitment work as she tried to fill staff jobs at her fastening company in Chino, California.
“These types of stories come to us every board meeting, and they really help all of us understand the meaning and value of our work,” says Javier. “It tells us we’re doing the right thing.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.