What's at stake?
Fresno County's Economic Development Corporation welcomed a new president. He's focused on workforce training and working with companies that offer wage gains.
The new president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation wants the organization, a public-private hybrid that attracts businesses to set up shop in Fresno, to partner with companies that offer careers, not just jobs.
How will the EDC determine that?
A couple of ways, their newly anointed CEO Will Oliver says. If the EDC is going to collaborate with a business on workforce training, Oliver wants to recruit companies that pay “above average” wages and offer employees the path to climbing a career ladder.
“It creates a race to the top,” he said, “for those employers that are actively engaged, for those that carry through on their commitments, that are paying above average wages. Those are the employers that we’re going to go back to.”
In an interview with Fresnoland, he pointed to the $23 million Good Jobs Challenge grant, awarded to Fresno, Madera, Kings, and Tulare counties in 2022, as the centerpiece of that work.
The EDC partnered with local labor unions, colleges, nonprofits, and other organizations across the four-county area to secure one of the competitive grants created under President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
Oliver’s eager to see this work through now at the helm of the EDC. On the one hand, it involves workforce training in four of the Central Valley’s growing industries – construction, manufacturing, transportation, and business services – for underserved Valley residents. On the other, it aims to offer trainees “wraparound services” like transportation stipends and childcare to eliminate barriers to participation.
“Our goal between now and 2027 is to place 2,500 people into those four sectors,” he said.
But the new Fresno EDC president has other ideas, too, adjacent to the primary domains of the EDC’s work of attracting and retaining businesses. That includes attracting investors and leveraging the private sector “to create public benefit” – something he explored pursuing a master’s at the London School of Economics.
“I think we have a lot of momentum,” he said. “I think we’re uniquely positioned to redefine the state of economic development.”
Oliver and the EDC have their work cut out for them, however, in a region where low-wage jobs grew at the second-highest rate in the state in the wake of the pandemic, and pollution is a literal dark cloud looming over industrial expansion in low-income neighborhoods.
Promoted from within EDC
Oliver was first hired by the EDC 10 years ago this month.
He came on as a business support specialist to work on retaining companies whose operations would be affected by the high-speed rail. The job brought the Madera native back to the Central Valley after a stint in Colorado Springs working on then-president Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
In his decade with the EDC, he also worked on bringing in technology companies from as far as Italy and Israel to establish locations and provide solutions to the Valley’s water and labor challenges, he said. The EDC recruited a company called Bluewhite from Tel Aviv, he added as an example, that helped retrofit tractors to operate unmanned.
Investments in agricultural technology in the Central Valley have not gone without criticism, however, particularly farmworker advocates concerned that the unregulated introduction of new technology into the fields will eliminate jobs.
Oliver was also on the team when the EDC, under the leadership of the previous Fresno EDC president Lee Ann Eager, secured the Good Jobs Challenge grant for the Fresno area – something he calls a “crystallizing moment” for the organization.
“That was something that I was very proud of,” he said, “because we were able to work with a number of organizations across county lines, many of which have never worked together before.”
While they’re not in the implementation phase for the grant yet, Oliver said the EDC conducted a successful pilot program shortly before he took over as CEO.
The pilot provided training to 10 people in working as a CNC machine operator. The EDC partnered with a cohort of manufacturing companies that had hiring needs in the specific position, as well as Reedley College.
“Manufacturers were able to engage the students, present about their companies,” he said, “and then afterwards, they had a chance to hire those individuals.”
What’s on the horizon for the Fresno EDC president?
Oliver now hopes to replicate the pilot at adult schools and other community colleges across the four-county area.
He pointed to programs like the Good Jobs Challenge as a potential path away from the low-wage job growth in the Central Valley as well.
It’s not just because the EDC will be vetting employers to ensure they commit to hiring folks after they complete workforce training, but also by helping low-wage workers “get upskilled” and attain better pay.
Outside of Good Jobs, other ongoing projects Oliver noted include a roughly $2 million, federally funded Workforce Training Center coming to Fresno City College’s new campus in west Fresno.
The center, which is in its early design stages, will offer the combined training resources of Fresno City College and local labor unions and employers partnering with the EDC.
“We see the future in west Fresno,” he said, “both in terms of training, job seekers for the jobs of the future, and we think it’s going to be an incredible asset for the region.”
Another neighborhood under the microscope in recent years due to the role it’s playing in economic growth is south central Fresno. While warehouse and manufacturing jobs have expanded, residents have organized and taken legal action to protect the neighborhood from increased pollution as a result.
Oliver said he’s “optimistic” Fresno can find ways to prioritize both the economy and the environment.
“I do think that there are enough policy tools to achieve both economic growth and environmental justice in general,” he said.
“My opinion is that we can accomplish both.”