April 5, 2024
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Economists call on Santa Barbara County to embrace economic development


Santa Barbara County needs to rethink the role of economic development if it is going to retain upper middle class and head of household jobs.

That was the theme of the Oct. 31 annual summit of the Santa Barbara Technology & Industry Association. Held on Halloween day at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott hotel in Buellton, the event painted a scary economic future for the county.

“We haven’t done anything in a long time in Santa Barbara County” when it comes to economic development, said Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Bob Hatch, who hosted the program. “It’s time to do something.”

Two of the best bets for high-wage job growth are technology and energy and environmental services, experts told an audience of about 200. Sheriff Bill Brown said North Santa Barbara County’s ailing construction sector will get a boost as a $96 million prison project gets underway in 2015.

Economist Josh Williams of BW Research said that while Santa Barbara County’s overall unemployment rate has been going down, north Santa Barbara County’s rate has remained higher than the national average.

Worse, the county as a whole lost jobs between 2007 to 2012.

When it comes to attracting professional jobs, 40 percent of the workforce in south Santa Barbara County has a bachelors degree. In comparison, in North Santa Barbara county the figure is just 17 percent.

And due largely to high housing costs, the county imports much of its professional talent every day from Ventura County or South San Luis Obispo County.
Williams identified six key industry clusters. One of the largest is health care, with about 17,000 workers in the county. The health care industry also offers high pay in many positions and offers the chance for nonprofessional workers to upgrade their skills.

Energy and environmental services is a small sector with about 1,000 workers currently, but a very promising future, Williams said. Average wages in the energy sector are $80,000 per year and onshore output in oil and gas has been growing, a separate report by UC Santa Barbara said. Smart grid and energy efficiency projects also could spur job growth.

The building and design industry was hard hit by the recession, and the slow rebound has favored higher wage designers and architects who are concentrated in the South County.

High technology and tech services are a south county specialty with most of the 8,000 people in those industries employed in software, cloud services and specialized manufacturing.

Business services, a sector that employs about 17,500 people contains a number of low paid positions but it offers move up potential.

Travel, tourism and agribusiness is a huge segment, with 27,500 people employed, however the segment has large numbers of employees earning $25,000 or less per year.

Williams said a huge problem for Santa Barbara County is that while it is growing jobs at both the low end and over $100,000 per year end of the spectrum, the middle is falling behind.

“Santa Barbara County is losing tier two jobs,” he said.

Sheriff Brown said that in addition to building the new North County jail, the county is competing for an adjacent $37 million project to build housing and other facilities to help inmates make the successful transition from incarceration to the workforce.

“We can’t isolate ourselves out of crime,” he said. “Segregating rich and poor communities is the worst for outcomes,”

He said that high unemployment is correlated to “certain types of crimes” including burglaries, rape, robbery and assault.