There’s a transportation hiring explosion going on.
California’s new state gas tax, Senate Bill 1, is poised to pour billions of dollars into state road-building agencies and millions into the coffers of their Kern County counterparts.
The County of Kern, City of Bakersfield and other local communities will be working to manage their need for engineers, road maintenance workers and other skilled laborers.
There’s a lot at stake.
Caltrans announced this week that it is adding 1,100 new jobs — in sectors from road maintenance to tech to planning as a direct result of the passage of SB 1.
Kern County Public Works Director Craig Pope said the county has slowly lost between 18 and 20 road maintenance workers over the last few years due to the county's budget struggles.
In the first year of SB 1 funding, he said, the county expects to get around $6 million and Pope plans to add back half of those lost positions.
And the staffing needs are likely to rise as the county’s share of funding ramps up to an expected $20 million in the program’s 10th year.
The county is going to need engineers, too, Pope said.
“We put in an immediate request to the (county administrative officer) for five. We hired one. We’ll probably need more than that,” he said.
But with Caltrans ramping up the hiring, Pope said, he’ll also have to defend his employees against poaching by better jobs in other parts of the state.
“We’re struggling already to hire new” engineers, he said. “Up and down the state — everyone’s in the same boat.”
Recently, he said, he got a surprise when one job candidate for an engineering job asked if he could do a phone interview.
Apparently the person was living in Qatar.
Pope is planning to go to regional universities like Fresno State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal State Northridge and try to bring Bakersfield students who have landed engineering degrees there back home.
Bakersfield Public Works Director Nick Fidler said he won’t immediately start hiring.
Bakersfield expects to get about $2.2 million in new revenue to start.
“We are utilizing that money to further current projects,” Fidler said. “This year we think we can handle the proposed workload with our staff.”
But he said SB 1 funding will jump to $6 million in the second year and nearly double the city’s local roadway improvement funds.
Right now, the city is working on a $5 million local roadway budget.
“In two years, that’s going to double and we’re going to need staff to keep up,” Fidler said.
Kern Council of Governments Executive Director Ahron Hakimi, himself a former Caltrans engineer, said getting those skilled workers on the job will be critical to building the momentum Kern County needs to keep building road projects. Kern COG is a regional transportation planning agency.
“Most of the agencies that are a part of Kern COG will be getting significantly more” money, he said. “You just can’t infuse this much money into the industry and expect engineers and other professionals to come out of the woodwork.”
Bakersfield, Hakimi said, is poised to have a stable flow of projects for at least the first few years of SB 1.
“We do have at least three-plus years of construction in the metro area that will go pretty consistently,” he said.
But once that work is done, the only way to keep the funding flowing — and improvements happening to Kern County’s stressed roads — is to make sure there are engineered, complete projects ready to offer up to state funding officials.
And that means hiring engineers to design them.
“The key to a lot of this is, can we keep up with getting projects ready to go,” Hakimi said. “We don’t want to have a gap two or three years from now. There’s a huge backlog of work that has to be done and that takes engineering.”
The good news, Fidler said, is that it isn’t just government that will benefit from the new money and the new work.
“It’s great for the local economy. A lot of these projects stay within the local community,” he said.
Kern County has access to nearly all the raw materials needed for roadwork.
“We have all of our own oil supplies and we have our own rock supplies,” he said.
That will keep the road money inside the county.
And Kern County has a lot of local companies that can do the kind of work the city will be looking to contract out.
“You’re going to see the local companies — there are six companies that do this kind of work — who are going to be going after them,” Fidler said.
As for the workers, this is obviously a good time to get resumes in and find out what kind job might be there for them.
Caltrans is holding a series of “recruitment events” all across the state to pull in the net on candidates for the 1,100 jobs it has open.
A maintenance career fair will be held in Bakersfield next month on Sept. 14, though the location and time have not yet been announced.