It's a tale of two cities: Bakersfield vs. anywhere else.

Ulysis Baal, a 2019 UCLA graduate, spent four years in California's entertainment hub. But after graduation, he decided to return to the Central Valley.

Ali Vaughan, conversely, went to Stanford University and decided to stay in the Bay Area after graduation. She opted to immerse herself in a city with a robust art scene and greater employment opportunities and connections.

Where college graduates choose to go after school is a big decision, and a recent ranking shows Bakersfield doesn't always score highly on their list.

But with new industries setting up shop, comparatively low rent prices and potential for an economic boom locally, graduates might not write the city off as quickly moving forward.

HOW BAKERSFIELD FARES

Zumper, an apartment search website, released its ranking of the 100 best cities for college graduates Wednesday. Bakersfield didn't do so well, coming in 72nd out of 100.

It's still an improvement: Four years ago, the same study ranked the city 89th.

The only California city to place in the top 10 this year was San Francisco (No. 3). Fresno ranked No. 93.

The rankings considered seven key metrics: median one-bedroom rent; population of 20- to 34-year-olds; population of 25-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree; median income of people age 25 and younger; nonmarried population; restaurants per 100,000 people; and March unemployment data.

Bakersfield fared well with median income (No. 18), rent prices (No. 23) and restaurants available (No. 31), the study showed. Its population of young people (No. 73), bachelor's degree holders (No. 94) and unemployment rate (No. 96) led to its low ranking, however.

The types of industries and jobs available — oil and agriculture being the leaders — could also have something to do with it, explained Zumper spokeswoman Crystal Chen.

"Salt Lake City did really well because there’s a growing tech scene. A lot of new grads, and I know personally I was like that, want to work in tech," she said.

Areas with outdoor recreation opportunities also seem to grab graduates' attention, Chen added.

That all came into play when Vaughan chose to stay in the Bay Area.

When she was in high school, she wanted to leave the Central Valley and see what was out there. Places such as Palo Alto, San Francisco and the Marin Headlands interested her, with lush greenery and impressive architecture.

"You can go to these various parts of the Bay Area, and they all have a different flavor, and I was just starting to understand that in college and to sink into it and be part of it," Vaughan said. 

The economic opportunities available in art also were a large factor. Places such as the Bakersfield Museum of Art have done great work in recent years to attract more art enthusiasts, she said, but it's hard comparing to what's available in San Francisco.

What hinders San Francisco on its Zumper ranking breakdown is that it is the least affordable place among the 100 cities for median rent prices (No. 100). Vaughan is already seeing a migration of people from all over California to the valley, and believes more change could be in store.

CHANGE COMING

With tech companies such as Bitwise and Amazon setting up shop in Bakersfield, the city could be more attractive to recent grads moving forward.

Amy Thelen, a Bakersfield native, went to San Diego State for college, and lived in Austin, Texas, before returning home. Family in the area, affordable rent prices and a strong sense of community made the decision to return to the Central Valley easy.

With the move came an opportunity to open a business locally. Thelen, the vice president of Bitwise Industries-Bakersfield, a tech company headquartered in Fresno, said the company wanted to "unpack the human potential" in cities that have not been "traditional tech hubs." Bakersfield being one of them.

"As we look at industries that have been very traditional, even oil and agriculture are trying to look to what tech they can use," she said. "Every town is in need of tech. Every company is a tech company ... and utilizes technology."

After opening up Bitwise's Fresno headquarters, Thelen said there are a couple of hundred tech companies that work directly or indirectly with the team. "We imagine that'll happen in Bakersfield," she added.

"As we diversify as an economy, there’s new jobs being made in new areas," echoed John-Paul Lake, a managing partner for Kern Venture Group. "I’m very optimistic about the outlook there."

Bakersfield and Kern County as a whole can also take the industries it excels in and think outside the box, suggests Jeremy Woods, who heads small business and entrepreneurship programs at Cal State Bakersfield.

With aerospace, energy and agriculture, Kern County has all it needs "to go to Mars" and "fix our planet," Woods said.

“We’re uniquely positioned to come up with solutions to generate energy, research affordable ways to separate O2 from the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels and provide enough water to grow crops ... and when we get it right on Earth, that’s what you need to do on Mars,” he said.

By encouraging Bakersfield and Kern County residents to "take initiative, think outside the box, solve problems, be relentlessly diligent, be open-mindedly humble and transparently cooperative," Woods believes an entrepreneurship revolution could take place locally.

Bakersfield has been home to Baal, the UCLA graduate, ever since he was 4, when his family moved from the Philippines. He said he loved the idea of "giving back to the place that raised me."

More than just employment, the restaurant and nightlife scene downtown is something Baal has noticed a change in since returning home.

"A lot of my friends are always talking about going out and having fun and spending time in downtown. That’s something that’s been popularized the last few years," he said. "There’s so many places people can congregate and chill and have fun."

If more industries come and change continues, that might encourage some natives who relocated to come back.

Cody Storm, a graduate student at Duke University, has a consulting job lined up in San Francisco after graduation. He said he ultimately wants to return to Bakersfield and help bring places that have been "left behind," such as Oildale and east Bakersfield, more up to speed.

The rent will be significantly more affordable, and with possibly more options to work from home, a common occurrence during the coronavirus pandemic, he could stay connected with companies elsewhere.

"Coronavirus is not a good thing, but there might be benefits that come from it for Bakersfield," he said.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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