This story is the first of the Broken Ladders series, exploring why so many in Fresno can’t climb out of poverty and what different organizations are doing to help create better job pathways. The series is made possible with support from the James Irvine Foundation.

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Americans love rags-to-riches stories. But Fresno, like many cities in the U.S., has not shown itself to be a city of opportunities, especially for certain populations. Social and economic mobility are limited — a lingering product of Fresno’s history of racism, segregation and redlining.

Numerous studies show that neighborhoods — their schools, community, neighbors, local amenities, economic opportunities and social norms — shape our children’s outcomes and that the hardest places to overcome poverty in the U.S. are usually cities and places where rich and poor live in separate worlds.

Among California cities, Fresno is the least racially and economically inclusive, ranking 59th of 59, according to a 2019 report by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C. based think tank. Across the U.S., Fresno ranked 253rd out of 274 cities in the U.S. on overall inclusion, 263rd on economic inclusion and 182nd on racial inclusion.

Their study defined “inclusion” by looking at income segregation, differences in poverty and wages by race and ethnicity, the number of people working yet still living in poverty, racial disparities in home ownership, and the number of families who spend more than 35% of their income on rent.

Another study — from a pair of researchers out of Harvard University in 2016 — found that the chances that a child who grows up in poverty in the Fresno area could reach the top 20% income bracket in the metropolitan area are less than 8%.

With its “Tale of Two Cities,” Fresno’s divide is hard and unyielding, with the east-west thoroughfare Shaw Avenue (although many argue it is now Herndon) serving as the city’s own “Mason-Dixon Line” — white and wealthy north of it, and poor, Black and Hispanic to the south.

Fresno has many people who are jobless, underemployed or underpaid or for whom opportunities for gainful employment are severely limited, aptly described by Michelle Skoor, chief workforce officer for Bitwise Industries, as “excluded people in underestimated places.”

So who are these excluded people that Michele Skoor of Bitwise refers to?

  • Black, Latino, immigrant,
  • Not college educated,
  • Grew up in poverty,
  • Raised in non-traditional families,
  • Living in high-poverty neighborhoods, or
  • Formerly incarcerated people.

What makes economic mobility in Fresno so difficult?

Researchers have found there’s generally three main areas that influence someone’s chances of moving up the economic ladder: living in a quality neighborhood with good schools and affordable housing, the availability of well-paying jobs, especially for people without a college degree, and the ability for a person to invest in themselves — whether it’s getting more education, a safety net when times are bad, and access to healthcare.

In Fresno, the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents are still largely consigned to the same neighborhoods as the city’s dirtiest factories, poorest performing schools, crumbling infrastructure, and accommodations with greatest livability concerns and fewer economic opportunities.

  • About a third of Fresno residents live in high poverty neighborhoods, the second-highest rate in the nation. Black, Latino, and Asian Fresnans are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods. Life expectancy for residents living in affluent versus poorer neighborhoods can vary by 20 years.
  • Eight out of the 10 most common occupations in Fresno do not have high enough annual wages to afford a one-bedroom apartment at market rents, according to Fresnoland analysis of state employment and wage data.
  • There’s just not enough well-paying jobs: about 42% of jobs in Fresno are considered “low-wage”, according to an analysis of 2017 data from the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
  • Fresno has a wide racial educational attainment gap – a difference of 23 percentage points between white residents with a bachelors degree and residents of color, according to data from the Urban Institute.
  • A 2018 study from PolicyLink and USC found that a $10/hour wage gap exists between white and Latino workers in Fresno County.

Glimpses of hope

As unyielding as Fresno can be, we found that the city is filled with people whose ability to beat the odds is striking and who are earning, in some cases, three times over the minimum wage. The key to their opportunity? Apprenticeships, career and technical education programs in area high schools, internship opportunities with local industries in fields like technology, welding, construction, health care. There are also second chance programs throughout the city that provide rehabilitation and new skills for those who ordinarily would be written off.

In this series, we look at a variety of programs and solutions that are helping improve economic opportunities for those who have traditionally been excluded from Fresno’s economy. A good job doesn’t solve everything — all Fresnans deserve good schools, quality affordable housing, a strong safety net, and a healthy neighborhood. But we know a good job can set someone on the right path to stability.


Take for instance Emelia Guadarama, 39, born and raised in Fresno, who is now an apprentice at Bitwise and on a path to becoming a program developer and earning at least $60,000 a year.

Like many young people, Guadarama had tried college right out of high school. “All the classes I took were like art and film,” she said. “I got to a point where I was like, ‘I really don’t know what I want to do with my life.’”

She ended up in retail, working in an assortment of places, from Bath and Body Works to Macy’s, “mall jobs” — all earning a minimum wage. Later, she moved on to a bridal shop where she was moved to the alterations room because she knew how to sew a little bit.

Realizing she had gone as far as was likely to do in the bridal shop job, Guadarama “started thinking about a career path” that would work at her age without requiring to go back to college. The Bitwise apprenticeship fits her perfectly.

There’s also 23-year-old Miguel Hernandez, who is on probation for a 2019 robbery. Until a few years ago, he was “selling drugs and alcohol and getting in fights” and seemed to be going nowhere. The odds facing him seemed insurmountable.

Born to a mother who was drug addicted and a father he did not know, Hernandez was raised by his grandparents in a house filled with aunts and uncles and other relatives who “kind of had their own issues in their own lives as far as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, issues with the law,” and “a lot of stuff going on.”

He survived. Today, Hernandez is an online marketing analyst for Bitwise Industries, and says about his evolution, “I stopped allowing negativity in my life to direct my path. I guess I kind of just drew myself out in the world a little bit more and kind of took constructive criticism a lot more.” Bitwise offered him a second chance at life.

Apprenticeships provide hands-on learning and technical instruction and are gaining in popularity. According to information on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, nationwide, more than 252,000 individuals entered the apprenticeship system in 2019; more than 633,000 apprentices were acquiring skills in about 25,000 registered apprenticeship programs across the nation, while 81,000 apprentices graduated from the apprenticeship system in that year. The number of apprenticeships grew by 3,133 — a 128% growth from 2009 levels.

There are loads of others, engaged in training programs in welding, construction and automotive repair who are breaking the barriers into the middle class, despite Fresno’s challenges.

At the Gladiator Welding apprenticeship program in Easton, it was impossible to distinguish welders from would-be welders because of the heavy protective gear and the noise from the hissing flames, but the excitement in the workshop was palpable.

Jose Morales, 24, a welder with Olston Steel, said of his acquired skills, “Welding itself gave me opportunities, and now I see the value in myself.”

His new employers had asked what he wanted to be paid. “I honestly didn’t even know how to answer that. I really didn’t. I was like, ‘I guess, like $20, I guess?’ I don’t know. And they gave me $23,” Morales said. “And I realized that now, I’m more valuable because I can do this welding.”

Mubarak Hackett, 19, an apprentice who just graduated from Edison High, said, “This [welding] is a trade that I wanted to pick up on to help me find myself.”

Career Technical Education, Career Nexus and Upward Mobility programs

Mike Betts, chairman of the Fresno Business Council, said that Career and Technical Education greatly increases opportunity for economic mobility by creating more career tech pathways in the schools, focusing the training on technical and academic skills needed for a high demand career.

Often organized around a broad theme, interest area, or training pathways approved by industry, CTE programs link learning with students’ interests and career aspirations, readying them for skilled employment right after graduation.

Fresno Unified offers programs in 14 California industry sectors, in a wide range of fields, such as engineering, information and communication technology, agriculture, building and construction trades, health sciences and medical technology, manufacturing and product development.

“These programs are graduating students with the proper skill set, so if they successfully complete the program, they should be ready to enter the work force,” Betts said.

Students in CTE programs get certified which serves as “proof to the employer that the students have actually passed the rigorous skills that are required by the organizations,” which helps them “move up the ladder,” Betts said.

“These kids are graduating with confidence; they’re graduating with skills; they have the proper life skills,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”

Second chance for formerly incarcerated people

Christopher Williams, 37, whose story reads like a made-for-TV movie, is finding a path to earning a sustainable income after a second degree murder conviction and serving 17 years in prison. Williams blames his instability on a lost childhood — a mother who was hooked on drugs and uncertainty about where his next meal would come from.

Today, Williams is eager to tell the story of his redemption and a second chance. He now works as a supervisor with the Center for Employment Opportunities, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated people with finding employment. According to Rochelle Trujillo, site director for CEO in Fresno, “hard working people that just need an opportunity.”

In the course of our reporting for this series, we encountered pockets of opportunity in apprenticeships and second chance programs throughout the city – in fields like technology, welding; in programs that provide rehabilitation and new skills for those who ordinarily would be written off; in internship programs that provide much needed on-the-job training; in upward mobility programs in local community colleges and high schools — all of which are improving mobility out of poverty.

Next in the series

In coming weeks, this series will explore Fresno-area programs — training and support services — that provide opportunities for training and skills acquisition. We’ll feature the process and show the successes of each program, highlighting people who have directly participated.

The first program to be featured is Bitwise, a company that is bringing technology to “those often overlooked places — cities like Fresno, Bakersfield and Merced — and populations that are rarely associated with high technology.

Other programs to be featured

Gladiator Welding, a free apprenticeship program that provides training and certification for welding professionals in a 15-week, hands-on training.

Center for Employment Opportunities helps formerly incarcerated people with employment placement, providing a path to be reintegrated into their communities.

School Aligned Programs

Career and Technical Education focuses on technical and academic skills needed for a high demand career. Every high school in the Fresno Unified School district offers at least one of 14 career pathway programs in a wide range of fields, such as engineering, information and communication technology, agriculture, building and construction trades, health sciences and medical technology, manufacturing and product development.

Upward Mobility offers financial and material support as well as career and academic counseling for students enrolled in vocational programs at Fresno City College, Reedley College and Madera Community College.

Career Nexus works with unemployed youth, ages 18 to 28, to determine their needs, links them with training opportunities for needed skills and then connects them to potential employers.

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.

I created Fresnoland so we can make policy public for everyone.