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B3K spotlights Kern's economic challenges, potential opportunities ahead

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John Paul "J.P." Lake

Leaders of the "B3K" regional economic development project on Tuesday unveiled an extensive local-market assessment that points out steep challenges — and potential opportunities — for Kern's long-term prosperity and quality job creation.

In a roughly hourlong presentation to the county Board of Supervisors, people involved in the year-old project presented data showing more than half of Kern residents struggle to make ends meet, and fewer than 20 percent of local jobs offer self-sufficiency and upward mobility.

"Kern County's economy is at a crossroads," B3K executive team member Nick Ortiz told the board. He said some areas of the local economy are experiencing great job creation "but the reality is we're now losing ground to competitor regions."

The assessment concluded local sectors from energy to aerospace face substantial market and regulatory pressures even as industries offering lower quality employment have expanded.

It found local workforce preparedness lags, along with commercially applicable innovation and creation of dynamic young firms.

Perhaps the study's bleakest conclusion was that race, age and gender affect how likely residents are to struggle to earn a living.

The good news was that the findings provide a foundation on which the project's many collaborators can build strategies for change and mutually agreed-upon investment targets — and that such work has begun.

After falling several months behind schedule, B3K, short for Better Bakersfield & Boundless Kern, has identified areas that appear to offer the greatest promise for exporting goods and services outside the region in order to attract prosperity and job opportunity.

The ones that got the most attention Tuesday were energy, especially renewable biofuels; aerospace; advanced manufacturing; business services; and "business dynamism and entrepreneurship," known in some places as the startup ecosystem.

Marek Gootman, who has helped shepherd B3K as a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, noted energy is among the local sectors facing tough times lately. The challenge now, he said, is to identify ways to build on the area's existing strengths and talent.

He told county supervisors the county's strength in solar and wind power investments, though helpful, probably won't make up for the loss of oil jobs amid California's push for greater clean energy. But he said maybe carbon capture and technologies like biofuels will.

"It is obviously a strength and probably will be a continued strength for the region," he said of local solar and wind energy. "But the number of jobs that's being created that are long-term jobs (is) not anywhere comparable toward the oil and gas industry, and some of these other activities around renewable fuels and carbon capture potential."

Aerospace activity, though focused in and around eastern Kern, does overlap somewhat into the valley portion of Kern, Gootman said. But to maximize the sector's potential there needs to be increased commercialization of valuable technologies and improvement in the local talent pipeline.

Advanced manufacturing clearly presents untapped potential, he said, while local companies selling business services will need to tap a wider inventory of digital skills and become more competitive.

John-Paul "J.P." Lake, a leader of one of B3K's five workgroups, said a main hurdle facing local entrepreneurship is durability: Relatively few local startups survive more than nine months.

Another problem he outlined, during the longest sector-specific presentation to supervisors Tuesday, is access to capital.

"The problem is that it's much harder to raise capital in Kern County than it is in our peer cities," he said.

Lake lamented the absence of a local small-business accelerator or incubator. But he said there may be an opportunity to develop an innovation lab with the help of Fresno-based tech hub Bitwise Industries, which is finishing work on a new co-working and training center in downtown Bakersfield.

He also outlined a plan to develop innovation funds that would serve each of the five market clusters identified Tuesday.

Following Tuesday's B3K presentation, Supervisor Leticia Perez said the work discussed feels like a rising tide lifting all boats. She related it to one of her pet projects: improving local workforce readiness.

She highlighted local successes in the area of dual enrollment of local high-school students at Bakersfield College. She said failure to engage similarly with young people will only leave to greater dependence on government support.

"As you know," she said, "we're looking at folks decades on the dole if we don't intervene and upscale and give the opportunities to compete and make sense of that."