The Stanislaus County unemployment rate hovers near 20 percent — the highest in 17 years.
Its educational attainment, both high school and college completion rates, is far below state and national averages.
That translates to less earning power. Non-high school graduates make about $10,000 less than graduates and $20,000 less than those with college degrees.
At the same time, school districts throughout the region are slashing budgets. Modesto City Schools is cutting at least $25 million and issued hundreds of layoff notices.
Almost 1,000 additional county educators may lose their jobs this July, amounting to some 17 percent of the teachers, administrators, counselors and librarians in the county's public schools.
It's a Catch-22 for the Northern San Joaquin Valley's economic future:
Nearly everyone agrees that public schools must be strong for the economy to thrive, yet they face deep cuts because of declining enrollment and reductions in state funding.
"This is a no-win situation for everyone in the community," said Keith Griffith, the education senior manager for the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.
"Last year (the schools) cut out virtually 99 percent of the fat. At this point we're into red meat and bone," he said.
At the same time, an educated work force consistently ranks among the top factors businesses look for when deciding whether to move to an area.
No. 2 attractor
The Boyd Co., a New Jersey-based business consulting firm, published a survey earlier this year that showed companies regard an available, skilled work force as the second-most important feature they consider when deciding where to move — just behind the cost of doing business.
Yet, some worry that the overall education level of the valley's work force could suffer if school districts' budget cutting forces larger class sizes and the elimination of key programs.
"What skills will they not be learning as a result of those cuts? Those cuts will last a lifetime," Griffith said. "They'll have to learn (some skills) on their own."
For others, the economic turmoil also presents opportunities — even if they're the result of sheer necessity.
"We still need to find a way to serve the needs of students," said George Boodrookas, dean of community and economic development for Modesto Junior College. "We must reach out to external funding resources in new and different ways that we ever have before. That's where it's going long term."
Community colleges, like the primary and secondary public school system, face their own funding problems. MJC is preparing to shave $7 million in spending by the end of the next academic year. The school already has cut one summer session and 110 fall sessions, equating to 6 percent of semester courses.
Meanwhile, demand has shot up. Both summer and fall applications have spiked by 20 percent from last year. Registrations from Feb. 1 to April 9 have swelled for summer session from 3,402 in 2009 to 4,057 in 2010 and for fall from 1,928 in 2009 to 2,315 in 2010.
Those numbers compel the college to narrow its focus to classes that move students forward in their careers and education, Boodrookas said.
"There is increased frustration as we've seen with the recent registration periods, longer waiting lists, fewer people getting into critical career technical education paths. It is clear we are definitely doing more with less, because we have to," he said.
Boodrookas works to create partnerships for community education and work force training. Some of these collaborations are with other government agencies and others are with private businesses.
He points to the WorkKeys program, now run through the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance, as one of those successful partnerships. MJC used to run the job skills assessment program before handing it off to the alliance five years ago.
These sorts of collaborations allow schools to both share resources and costs associated with running programs.
The college is working with the Patterson Joint Unified School District to help it develop a new career pathways program. The school district received a two-year, $40,000 grant from Workforce Investment Act funds. The money will go toward developing a program for students in logistics, transportation and distribution management.
Operated by the Central Valley Educational Leadership Institute at California State University, Fresno, the project is meant to align secondary and post-secondary programs with industry needs.
"The ultimate goal is to create opportunities for students to be better prepared to work in that industry or continue to higher education related to the field," said Marcy Masumoto, a project director at the Fresno State leadership institute.
Logistics, transportation and distribution management was picked in Patterson because of the growth of distribution centers in the area. Griffith said 17 percent of the nation's working populace are involved in logistics, transportation or supply chain management.
Work on the program began in February, and the grant runs through the December 2011 school year. The first entry-level courses should be underway the next academic year.
The alliance is working on developing a similar career pathways program in Waterford, in addition to existing career academies in Ceres, Enochs, Johansen and Davis high schools.
These kind of collaborations, with emphasis on both vocational and business basics, provide essential direction for students.
And they in turn can become the engines of recovery in the valley, said Jonathan London, founding director of the Center for Regional Change at the University of California at Davis.
"What will drive the recovery will be human capital," he said. "It is about the work force, their level of education, their skills — and not just their workplace skills but their ability to navigate the system.
"Young people have terrific aspirations and are looking at ways to better themselves," London said. "What they lack is a road map, a sense of what is out there to help them achieve those high goals."
Innovation considered key
Innovative school, community and private sector collaborations are considered a key to future success. The partnerships can help teach basic communication, empowerment, health and job skills to students to prepare them for the work force.
Cindy Young, director of career technical education and the regional occupational program for the Stanislaus County Office of Education, points to the county's regional advisory committees as one successful collaboration.
The districtwide panel brings together educators and members of the manufacturing industry to discuss current curriculum and share ideas. The volunteers group, which has about 30 members, will meet for the third time at the end of the month.
"We can't do it alone. We must do it together," Young said. "It really is becoming a statewide focus. We must stand together because we're in this together. The economy is affecting everyone. I am very pleased with the types of collaborations I'm seeing and the partnerships that are taking place. This is an industry graciously attending advi- sory meetings, walking into classrooms, opening businesses to teachers."
For groups such as CommonWealth Modesto, a coalition of young professionals focused on community improvement, the school cuts should be seen as a call to activism.
"I think the cuts absolutely will have an impact on our education level in the future," said CommonWealth member Ryan Swehla, a commercial real estate consultant. "It is really kind of a wake-up call to Modesto, for people to get their head out of the sand and try to improve our community."
Swehla said education and economic development are CommonWealth's main proj- ect areas. The group has a mentoring program for youth who are at risk of dropping out of school, and is involved in other programs aimed at engaging young people.
Griffith said efforts such as those of the alliance and CommonWealth Modesto will become even more important in the face of ongoing budget cuts.
"Education is an investment in a society's present and future," he said. "We all benefit by having a highly educated community with people who make good wages. We all benefit by having young people who know what the laws are.
"A child who is in school is less likely to commit crime, less likely to drop out, more likely to be a wage-paying member of society."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.