Opinion: Here’s how we’re working to train the workforce of tomorrow. Today’s students represent an untapped talent pool.


By Mark Cafferty, Sunita Cooke, Lynn Neault for San Diego Union Tribune

Cafferty is the president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and lives in Point Loma. Cooke is the superintendent and president of San Diego and Imperial Valley Counties Community College Associations and lives in El Cajon. Neault is the chancellor of the Grossmont Cuyamaca Community College District and lives in San Diego.

In many ways, San Diego County’s economy is thriving, but not all residents are sharing equitably in wealth. The region’s economy has more than doubled in size over the past two decades, although the typical household has not seen the same increase. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most households did not earn enough to meet the region’s most basic cost of living. Recently, when looking at the cost of living, San Diego was found to be the third least affordable region in the country.

Meanwhile, businesses are desperately seeking workers. By the end of 2021, San Diego’s labor force was down 32,000 people. More early retirements and decreased immigration have contributed to the decline.

A new $18.1 million state grant promises to address these issues, including income disparity and preparation for high wage jobs. The funding will go towards better preparing high school and college students for the workplace and offering paid internships that lead to high-paying careers. The effort aims to build a diverse pipeline of qualified workers to fill labor shortages now and in the future.

Schools, community colleges and universities in San Diego and Imperial counties will work hand-in-hand with representatives from workforce and economic development and local industries in a new collaborative effort to administer the four-year grant. Several major businesses in the area, including Bank of America, Rady Children’s Hospital and Illumina, have already agreed to serve on the collaborative board.

The collaborative will focus on increasing high schoolers’ preparedness for college and the numbers of students going to college, particularly for Hispanic and Black students who are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to seek higher education than White students. Ultimately, the goal is to increase representation of Hispanic and Black professionals in the workforce, increasing access to high-wage, high-demand careers.

The grant focuses on students in four key career paths: business, computing and engineering, health and education. More than 107,000 students participate in these pathways in the region, including 79,000 students enrolled in the programs at community colleges, and almost 16,000 at the University of California San Diego, San Diego State University and California State University San Marcos. There are nearly 250 programs in these pathways at regional high schools.

Building on the previous successful work of Advancing San Diego, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. and JP Morgan Chase & Co. (and its $3 million investment), a main focus of the grant will be to fund more paid internships for students in the four career pathways and increase curriculum alignment, while supporting small businesses. Greater awareness about internships will be provided to the business community so that a culture develops in which employers are identifying and training the next generation of workers and leaders — like Kailyn King, an intern at ZUM Radio, a San Diego-based software company that manufactures radio-frequency transceivers for the amateur radio community. King is a computer science transfer student that began her studies at Oceanside’s MiraCosta College and transferred to California State University San Marcos.

The creation of paid internships will provide more lower-income, Black and Latinx students, who may previously have had to choose low-paying work unrelated to their degree over an internship to make ends meet, with hands-on experience that improves their career prospects and earning potential. Additionally, surveys by the National Association of Colleges and Employers consistently show that students who partake in a paid internship receive more job offers before graduation than students who do not.

The grant also helps to fulfill the goals of our region’s Inclusive Growth Initiative, which the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. launched in 2018 to inform San Diego’s economic priorities and make the business case for economic inclusion. By better training and preparing students for a career, we will be ensuring that San Diego is cultivating and retaining the diverse talent that the region needs to compete on a global stage.

Today’s students represent an untapped talent pool for tomorrow. Business and education leaders are prepared to work together to ensure that our promising young people — in all corners of our community — have the opportunity to lead our region into a prosperous future.

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