This month, I am interviewing Congressman Josh Harder who is a strong supporter of tech and vocational education. He lives in Turlock with his wife, Pam. His family has been in the Central Valley for generations, since his great-great grandfather joined a wagon train in search of gold and stopped just short to start a peach farm in Manteca. Harder is a graduate of Modesto High School, Stanford and Harvard. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Harder focuses on ensuring the Central Valley’s vibrant agricultural community thrives. Harder also serves as a member of the Education and Labor Committee where he works to strengthen Career and Technical Education programs.
Lan: Congressman Harder, we appreciate you taking time to discuss improving our Central Valley’s skilled workforce training and economic development initiatives. Can you describe your vision to create more higher-wage jobs in the Central Valley?
Harder: In addition to traditional education, we need to invest in a broad set of vocational and technical skills education programs. Increasing the pool of local skilled workers will attract higher-paying employers to the region and help our current companies who are struggling to fill skilled-job openings. We don’t even have the personnel necessary to fill the jobs we have available now in the Valley. Recently, I spoke with a large employer who opened a new facility on the other side of the Altamont because they couldn’t find enough maintenance mechanics here in the Valley for their openings. We have to make sure our students get the skills training needed to fill these higher-wage jobs.
Lan: How can government agencies help local companies find enough qualified tech workers to grow?
Harder: I introduced a skills education package, which, among other things, would build on the success of Pathways Programs like the one offered at Enochs High School. These programs connect interested students with local employers so they can get hands-on experience while in school – and also prepare students to meet local employer needs.
Lan: We have seen Silicon Valley expand and turn San Francisco as well as the East Bay into job-creating tech hubs over the last 30 years. How can we support the Central Valley’s development as a new tech hub capable of driving local economic growth?
Harder: We have to attract more businesses here by offering a workforce that’s capable of meeting the needs of these employers. We can do that by supporting tech education as well as organizations like the VOLT Institute in Modesto. We helped them secure a nearly $1 million EDA investment – the largest in Stanislaus County history. The investment will further grow VOLT’s successful programs – VOLT’s first class in 2018 had over 88 percent of graduates secure good-paying local jobs. It also will also VOLT to purchase new equipment to expand into new areas of skills education. It is also important to build partnerships with companies in the private sector as well as educational institutions such as Modesto Junior College and the Stanislaus County Office of Education, so we can maximize effectiveness of vocational and tech training initiatives.
Lan: The Central Valley has amazing potential because it is one of the few regions with a large workforce located adjacent to such a large tech hub like Silicon Valley, yet the vast majority of Bay Area companies continue to overlook the Stockton/Modesto area in their expansion plans. In fact, these companies have taken thousands of our best-paying tech jobs out of California instead of investing in the Central Valley. What strategies will you implement to attract Bay Area employers to Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties?
Harder: I agree that the Central Valley has huge potential and can be an attractive region for companies to expand to. In addition to graduates from our local universities, we need to create job-ready skilled workers through vocational training and certificate programs as well. We also need to do a better job of marketing the Central Valley’s potential. My office is working hard on behalf of employers looking to move here. Aemetis Technology, for example, is interested in building a new facility here in the Valley, but the bureaucracy is moving too slowly on this – and it’s costing us jobs. The Aemetis facility would create an estimated 2,000 jobs here in the Valley either directly or indirectly. I will meet with anyone, anywhere, if it means bringing good paying jobs to the Valley.
Lan: Josh, you recently introduced a bill to expand college credits for apprenticeships. How do you see this helping accelerate growth of the Central Valley’s skilled and tech labor force? How will this bill help local employers?
Harder: My bill would accelerate attainment of college degrees, which would help students, as well as employers in need of that talent. For example, if you’re a tradesman in Modesto and you want to branch out and start your own business, you may want to get a business degree. And if you do, your education in the skills world should count toward credits for your business degree. My bill would help formalize the program that does that and make sure it has the support it needs.
Lan: Central Valley workers have largely been left out of the tech economy. How do you plan to improve their prospects to acquire the tech skills needed to compete for the jobs of the future?
Harder: If you want to get a philosophy degree, you get federal help. But if you want to get a certificate to be a maintenance mechanic or to perform other new tech jobs, you’re on your own. My skills education package would fix that. It would make people eligible to receive federal money to complete short-term certificate programs.
Lan: Over the past few years, several tech initiatives have already been established in the region. Huddle x Launch Pad, CodeStack academy, ValleyWorx, Women Techmakers, Valley Hackathon, Modesto’s AgTech Summit and Bay Valley Tech are all making a positive impact. How can your office help our local tech community grow?
Harder: We’re always here to help local nonprofits secure federal funding. Our office also hosts the annual Congressional App Challenge, which supports the development of locally-grown tech talent.
Thank you so much for your time, Congressman Harder. We appreciate everything you and your staff do for our community.
About Phillip Lan
As president of Bay Valley Tech, Phillip Lan oversees both the fast-growing code academy, which provides free and low-cost tech training to Central Valley and East Bay residents, as well as the ValleyWorx co-working space, a Modesto-based tech hub that supports local entrepreneurs. A strong believer in the power of tech communities as a force to lift entire regions out of poverty, Lan is a key driver in Bay Valley Tech’s numerous initiatives to support Central Valley hackathons, software meetups, Women Techmakers, high school coding programs and the AgTech Summit.
Prior to Bay Valley Tech, Lan led the digital marketing team at E&J Gallo Winery and held marketing, business development and leadership roles in tech companies such as IBM and Ask Jeeves. He holds a bachelor’s degree in managerial economics from U.C. Davis; and an MBA in computer information systems from California State University-East Bay.