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Responding to above average poverty and unemployment rates, North County leaders are working on attracting new industries to the area, retraining a local workforce for high-tech jobs and boosting the reading levels of graduating high school students.

The goals are part of a plan laid out in EconAlliance’s Workforce and Literacy Initiative, a five-year compact developed by a coalition of local government officials, business owners, educational administrators and community leaders.

Lompoc and Guadalupe’s unemployment rates are more than twice the national average, hovering around 12 percent, while about 11 percent of Santa Maria residents cannot find work, according to 2010 figures.

EconAlliance members correlate the unemployment rates to an undereducated workforce, pointing to a statistic that 60 percent of Allan Hancock College students enter their freshman year reading at a ninth grade level.

 The group has five goals, including doubling the number of bachelor and associate degrees awarded from institutions in the region, providing at least 1,000 adults with basic literacy skills annually, doubling the number of career technical education certificates awarded by “target schools,” doubling the number of children participating in at least one early childhood reading program and cutting the number of students unable to read at grade-level in half.

Decision makers discussed strategies to implement the goals during a semi-annual forum Wednesday in Solvang, placing a special emphasis on educating infants and toddlers in the first five years of life.

“We’re missing the boat by not investing in the early years and providing children with a real foundation for success,” said Ben Romo, executive director of First5 of Santa Barbara County, during a keynote address.

A human brain develops most before age five, with synaptic connections between cells occurring “at a mind boggling rate” in newborns, Romo said.

“These synaptic connections control everything about us,” he said.

But if children are not nurtured in those early years, fewer synapses connect, Romo said.

“Just by talking to a baby, that baby is learning the flow and rhythm of language development with complex language. Even reading junk mail aloud is something that could help. Baby Einstein isn’t sitting in front of a TV or computer. That doesn’t help,” he said. “But parents engaging with their children and having the time, skills and abilities to really engage in a meaningful way leads to higher cognitive functions.”

Bolstering the number of pre-kindergarten child care centers could lead to a better educated workforce in the future, Romo said.

Santa Barbara County has enough pre-schools to accompany about 11,000 students, Romo said.

“We don’t have the basic infrastructures to support the children we’re sending to the K-12 system, and no wonder our kids struggle, because they’re getting kids whose brains aren’t fully developed to their full potential. We need about 5,000 new preschool spaces to meet the needs of families,” he said.

But the situation creates a Catch-22 for impoverished families. Preschool costs for a North County family with two children averages about $21,600. 

Developing those institutions county-wide is a long-term solution to a current workforce shortage. In Lompoc, economic leaders are discussing ways to bring new business to the city, instead of sending residents down the road for work in Santa Barbara and Goleta.

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“We need to embrace [agriculture],” Jenelle Osborne, chair of the Economic Development Committee in Lompoc said.

Investing and attracting ancillary agriculture operations, which Osborne refers to as “high tech ag” could present employment opportunities for a mid-level workforce in Lompoc, Osborne said.

In Santa Maria, where strawberries are so profitable that they are planted to the edges of highways and major intersections, growers are looking at similar ventures.

“If we could make the jam, the fruit leather, labeling – that’s a real opportunity. Santa Maria could find a new [agricultural] sector dependent on mid-level tech employees,” said Glenn Morris, president and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Both Lompoc and Santa Maria are facing a gap in mid-level employees, people who Morris describes as being “less than an engineer, but more than a wrench turner.”

“The ability to be a technologist in the middle is critical right now,” Morris said.

He attributes the lack of a mid-level workforce to the two local universities, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and University of California, Santa Barbara, being impacted with students.

“We don’t have a four-year university kicking out 22-year olds ready for their first jobs out here,” Morris said, adding that those who do attend a four-year university or college must leave the area to gain admittance. “The question is, do we get them back?” 

Harold Pierce covers the Santa Ynez Valley as a reporter for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce