If you haven't heard of Kern County, you're not alone. Located in southern California, it's always been a rich producer of oil and crops, its wide, flat landscapes marked by fields and rigs shimmering in the distance. The county is roughly centered on Bakersfield, which still has a slow, rough-around-the edges reputation made famous by country singers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who considered the city home (you can tour Buck's Crystal Palace music hall and museum if you happen to be in town). Today, however, Bakersfield/Kern County is anything but slow - in fact, this region is growing at a blistering pace by economic development standards.
"From 2001 to 2010, Kern County's economy was ranked first out of 102 regions in terms of GDP growth among metros with a population of 500,000 or greater," says Richard Chapman, president and CEO of the Kern Economic Development Corporation. "During this period average annual GDP growth was 9.7 percent."
Kern County didn't slow down in 2011, either. In August 2012 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that Kern County's 5.3 percent employment gain from December 2010 to December 2011 was not only tops in California, but also the largest employment gain in the country.
Although agriculture and energy are still key industries that employ tens of thousands of workers, Kern County is now developing a reputation for growing high-tech industries such as wind and solar power, aerospace, and distribution/logistics that need highly skilled workers.
Wind and solar companies have received county approval to build three million and one million megawatts (MW) of combined capacity. When operational, Terra-Gen Power's 1,500 MW project will be world's largest wind park. Hydrogen Energy California is also developing a $4 billion plant in western Kern County that will incorporate carbon capture and storage and use CO2 for enhanced oil recovery.
Aerospace and defense remains a leading industry cluster. One of the higher-profile operations is the Mojave Air and Space Port. The nation's first commercial spaceport, this facility is home to over 60 aerospace-related companies, including Richard Branson's The Spaceship Company and Paul Allen's new Stratolaunch venture. Edwards Air Force Base and the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake significantly add to the region's rich aerospace and defense foundation.
Being located north of Los Angeles County and traversed by California's two major north-south interstates, Kern County has become a fast-growing hub for transportation and logistics. National firms with Kern County operations include Target, Sears, Famous Footwear, Caterpillar, and Railex. Several of these companies reside at the 1,450-acre Tejon Ranch Commerce Center. This signature commercial/industrial development is already home to three million square feet of existing warehouse facilities. Its newest tenant, Dollar General Corporation, recently announced it would lease 600,000 square feet of warehouse space.
Although Kern County has enjoyed enviable growth, one of the biggest obstacles to attracting out-of-state business is overcoming California's business reputation.
"While no one disputes California has a high business tax burden, it is important to first understand Kern County's relatively strong competitive position," says Chapman.
According to a 2010 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, California loses very few jobs to other states. Out of California's 18 million jobs, the state loses an average of only 9,000 jobs annually as a result of relocation.
Another key trend is that almost all significant job migration within the state occurs between adjacent counties - especially outward from central coastal cities. "In general," says Chapman, "companies are looking to be closer to more productive business clusters and more affordable real estate. In other words, businesses are moving from cities like Los Angeles to regions like Kern County."
To meet these increasingly diverse work force needs, Kern County is busy improving vocational and technical-skills training in the region. "In the past our basic industries of oil and agriculture did not typically require a postsecondary degree to get a decent job in the field; today, however, a comprehensive understanding of machinery and related automation processes is being required by more of Kern's major employers," says Chapman.
This translates into workers having some level of postsecondary education or training, which is a concern for Kern County. Overall, Kern County residents have lower levels of education attainment than other California residents, or the nation as a whole. About 29 percent of Kern County adults have less than a high school diploma, and only 15 percent of Kern's adult population has a bachelor's degree or higher.
To improve these numbers, the Kern Economic Development Foundation (KEDF) has launched several mentoring programs to increase awareness of jobs that will be important to the county in coming years. For example, the Alliance of Women in Energy has created a mentoring program for female high school students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math careers. To tackle the expected shortage of physicians, nurses, and other healthcare staff, the Alliance of Medical Professionals helps students prepare for the transition to postsecondary education and healthcare careers.
State Farm Insurance Companies recognized the potential in Kern County nearly two decades ago when it first broke ground in 1993. Since then it has relocated employees from other parts of California to its Bakersfield campus.
"When we started our search, we wanted to be sure we found a community that would provide a high quality of life, reasonable cost of living, good schools, and access to higher education," says Christopher C. Ward, vice president for State Farm Insurance Companies' Westlake Executive Office in Westlake Village.
Because State Farm knew its office would be at least 500,000 square feet in size, it only focused on counties that could accommodate the construction demands with reasonable permitting regulations, as well as provide cutting-edge technology infrastructure. "Bakersfield met the greatest number of our needs," says Ward.
That was nearly 20 years ago-today his opinion hasn't changed: "We are pleased with the quality, quantity, and availability of the work force here," says Ward. "Our partnership with California State University-Bakersfield has become a great opportunity for both organizations. We're happy to support them and they provide great candidates as we grow our work force. We're also very pleased with our partnership with the City of Bakersfield - we continue to work together, 19 years later, to make the community even better for the people who live here."