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Guest Column: Sonoma County's Changing Demographics and Workforce

Author: Albert Lemma
November, 2016 Issue

Over the last 20 years, a demographic shift has taken place in Sonoma County. As this shift continues and higher rates of Hispanics and millennials enter the workforce as baby boomers exit, unique opportunities and challenges for business, government, education, and community-based organizations will emerge.  
Labor market challenges
The Sonoma County Economic Development Board’s (EDB) latest Workforce Development Survey Report of 200 local employers found 2015 was a healthy year for job growth, with 79 percent of employers surveyed hiring new employees. However, 65 percent of those same employers experienced hiring difficulty, citing an insufficient number of applicants as the main reason, and that trend is likely to continue in this tightening labor market—though the emerging Hispanic population could be an opportunity to fill that need.
Postsecondary educational attainment was key to filling high-skilled positions in health care and social assistance, finance and insurance, and professional, scientific and technical industries. Interpersonal skills, motivation, knowledge skills, analytical skills and organizational skills were cited as the top skills lacking in the incoming workforce. Other employers’ ongoing concerns were high housing and living costs, increased labor costs, and the lack of qualified applicants.
Opportunities: The future starts now
What can employers do now to prepare the workforce of tomorrow.

Strengthen career pathways. Internship and apprenticeship opportunities offered through career technical education (CTE) programs encourage on-the-job work experience and professional skills development. Connecting with local schools can help employers engage with their future workforce by sharing experiences and workforce needs. Further networking can occur through job fairs, mentorships and information exchanges that educate our future workforce on potential careers and help develop professional networks and a referral pipeline to local employers.

Boost training efforts and support skill advancement. Local employers continue to seek assistance with staff development and training as they experience challenges finding candidates with the skills needed in today’s and tomorrow’s economy. Offering programs through our local educational institutions and Job Link, which both work to close this skills gap and establish training initiatives that increase the diversity of experience and skills, will go far in meeting employer demands for current and future job openings.
Encourage the use of available resources. The EDB has collaborated with the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board and Job Link to offer no-cost support services for employers, including talent recruitment and retention, customized employee training, subsidized hiring incentives and specialized hiring events. Additional resources are available through our local educational institutions, including the Sonoma County Office of Education, Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University and Empire College.
The rise of millennials in our workforce
In 2014, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors’ 15 Facts About Millennials report contained some interesting facts for local employers: “Millennials are the largest, most diverse generation” in the country. They’ve been “shaped by technology as pioneers in both production and consumption,” with more than half expressing an interest in entrepreneurship and starting a business. “Millennials value community, family and creativity in their work,” with social networks a big part of their daily lives.
“Millennials have invested in human capital” more than their parents, the report continues, with more having a college degree than any previous generation. They’ve faced major challenges in entering the workforce during an economic downturn, with wage stagnation affecting their earning power. As a result, millennials are staying with their early-career employers longer, with the advantage of job security, encouraging more on-the-job learning with increased productivity and less turnover. Millennials have moved into urban areas faster than their less-educated peers, with an attraction to coastal communities like Sonoma County.
Lastly, “Millennials are driving social and demographic shifts…skilled in technology, determined, diverse and more educated than any previous generation, with the potential to have a lasting impact for this generation and thus the U.S. economic performance for decades to come.”
Albert Lerma is director of business development and innovation at the Sonoma County Economic Development Board with more than 27 years in city, county, and state government. He holds an M.P.A. in Public Finance from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a B.A. in Economics and Journalism both from Indiana University-Bloomington. Contact him at (707) 565-6428.



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