California labor secretary speaks in Chico about jobs diversity via Community Economic Resilience Fund.
CHICO – Stewart Knox has a broad focus as California’s secretary of labor and workforce development, but he has a special place in his heart for the upstate.
Knox grew up in Vina, where he still visits his mother every few weeks. His family’s roots go back to farmland in Chico, and he’s an alum of Chico State, where he returned Thursday for the Economic Forecast event hosted by the university’s Center for Economic Development.
“Good to be home,” he told the newspaper with a smile.
Knox spoke to an audience of business leaders, government and nonprofit groups about the Community Economic Resilience Fund, or CERF — a $600 million state grant, according to its website, to “diversify local economies and develop industries sustainable that create high-quality, broadly accessible jobs for all Californians.”
Butte, Tehama and Glenn counties fall within the North State Region that covers the northeastern corner of California. CERF divides the state into 13 regions, with funds allocated to each.
“The state recognizes how important this 10-county region is, and we want to invest and get people within the 10-county to have the opportunity for good jobs,” Knox explained after his speech, a question and answer with Co-Chair of the Courtney Farrell conference. “At the end of the day, we want to see the northern state play an active role in this.”
Diversification is key. He heard economist Robert Eyler present a forecast showing that the strength of the labor market is the only thing keeping the region, the state and the nation out of recession. Unemployment is about 4%, “an all-time low for the state of California,” Knox noted.
However, Knox noted a disproportionate amount of jobs in one sector, hospitality, with lower wages compared to other industries.
“The governor talked about Tuesday at the budget hearing: The reason California holds up pretty well in most recessions is that we have a diversified economy,” he said. “This means that we have many sectors of the industry, so if one sector goes down, another sector can gain.
“But if you have three sectors, essentially, that your economy is based on – leisure/hospitality, government and agriculture, which a lot of our counties have up here – if you have two of those sector declines, your economy really it’s starting to collapse. . . The broader that scope is, the more you’re going to be able to stabilize in a bad economy.”
The impact of Ag
Knox cited agriculture as a sector with higher paying jobs. Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau, which owns Lodestar Farms in Oroville, echoed that assessment because of the range of businesses that fall under the ag umbrella.
Wages in Butte County’s agricultural sector (which includes fishing and forestry) rose just 2.7% over the past year, Eyler reported, below the county average of 6.9%. But ag moves to other sectors, from production (increase by 7.9%) to the legal sector (the highest increase by 26.3%).
Cindy Daley, director of Chico State’s Center for Regenerative Ag, presented a project underway at the university to identify farmland suitable for carbon sequestration. The impacts go from environmental to economic.
“We need agriculture more than ever now,” Johansson told this newspaper. “Whether it’s to bring stability to food prices, whether it’s to create jobs, agriculture needs to be successful in the North State – and it can be a big part of the state economy.
“The first is to embrace our agricultural roots, and that includes forestry,” he added, referring to fires in recent years. “When we don’t manage the resources they provide for agriculture, they become liabilities.”
Diversification also resonated with city officials.
Chico Assistant City Manager Jennifer Macarthy, who oversees economic development, said afterward that she was heartened by Eyler’s employment statistics over the past year showing “where our county took a hit (from the pandemic shutdown) , we’ve started that recovery process and we’re working toward recovery in a strong way, looking forward to what’s going to happen with the economy moving forward. From a jobs perspective, I think it’s because we have, especially in the Chico community, a well-diversified employment base.”
Chico City Councilwoman Deepika Tandon agreed, adding, “There are great plans coming for our community. These predictions really help us plan how to move forward in order to grow as a community. We have many organizations that want to work together for the benefit of not only our community, but the entire region.”