The North San Joaquin Valley — made up of San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties — may be the most misunderstood and overlooked region in California. Historically, these three counties have been lumped together with larger San Joaquin Valley or Central Valley in a variety of policy, planning and economic development circles. The NSJV shares some characteristics with the Central Valley, such as a large agricultural economy, otherwise there is little economic connectivity, especially in its labor market.
Instead, the NSJV has much stronger connections with the Bay Area, as the fastest growing and changing area in the Northern California Megaregion. As of 2016, 80,000 daily commuters traveled between the NSJV and the Bay Area, and another 27,000 flowed between the NSJV and Sacramento area. The NSJV labor market is 12 times more connected to the Northern California Megaregion than with the south San Joaquin Valley.
In addition, surging local job growth in the NSJV is also driven by Megaregion connectivity. In the past five years, the NSJV has added jobs at a faster rate than any region in Northern California. The primary driver has been an explosion in warehousing fueled by e-commerce, but the combination of available industrial space and relatively lower costs can also be attractive to some Bay Area-connected manufacturing and service industries.
In 2014, the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific released our first North San Joaquin Valley Assessment, a series of detailed white papers laying out the economic and social characteristics of the NSJV, and its role within the Northern California Megaregion. Since then, we have advocated three ways that communities in the NSJV can better collaborate to leverage their place in the Northern California Megaregion and achieve their common goals for a prosperous future.
1. Create regional identity
Our communities need to develop a distinct regional identity to support marketing and more productive engagement with external audiences, especially within California. The NSJV has over 1.5 million residents and is the fastest growing part of the Northern California Megaregion. As such, there should be further exploration of more formal inter-county economic and planning organizations in the NSJV, both private and public, as seen in other multi-county metropolitan areas, like the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the Greater Sacramento Economic Council. There is a growing recognition of the concept of the Northern California Megaregion by economic developers and thought leaders in the Bay Area and Sacramento regions, making it an ideal time to promote the NSJV region to new audiences. With a new governor bringing fresh perspectives in 2019, it is also an ideal time to push for greater state policy and planning recognition of this new economic geography.
2. Collaborate to improve infrastructure
The counties have already collaborated to secure funding for an enhancement and extension of the ACE commuter rail to Modesto and Merced, the line that currently connects San Joaquin County and Silicon Valley. In addition, all three counties now have a similar transportation sales tax and have increased collaboration on regional transportation plans, and the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission is actively engaging with North San Joaquin Valley transportation agencies in developing their own future plans. These are great steps, but more can be done, such as collaboration to fill the gap in passenger air service through a regional airport.
3. Develop human capital and workforce skills
This third area for regional action is arguably the greatest challenge. For instance, each NSJV county ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the nation’s metropolitan areas for the share of adults with at least a college degree. These are significant barrier to business investment and fully capitalizing on the region’s positioning in the Northern California Megaregion. Raising college achievement is an important long-run goal, but other approaches to skills development can generate more immediate and equally impactful results.
This challenge was the subject of last December’s 2018 NSJV conference in Stockton. The event included a keynote address by Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who stressed the importance of transforming skills development in terms of improving Stockton’s — and the whole region’s — future. Linda Bidrossian from the Bay Area Council spoke about the Council’s Workforce for the Future program and the need to leverage opportunities across the entire Megaregion. Robert Tibbs — a workforce development entrepreneur — described a new company he’s launching in the region called ConSol-USA, an impact outsourcing service provider with a focus on recruiting, upskilling and directly employing typically overlooked talent in technology-focused jobs. Finally, our Center at the University of Pacific described a new employer-based skills initiative which pilots a regional model to leverage skills training and workplace experience across the NSJV’s logistics value chain.
There are tremendous untapped opportunities to address infrastructure, skills development and economic opportunity through greater collaboration across the Northern California Megaregion. Counties and cities within the NSJV can benefit from expanding collaboration to make the most of opportunities created by growing intra-and inter-regional connectivity. Strengthening the NSJV also supports the global competitiveness of the Megaregion benefiting the well-being of residents throughout Northern California.