Manufacturing is becoming a bigger focus in Kern after a report last year said the sector has generated hundreds of good jobs in recent years and that better coordination in the local industry could lead to still more local employment.
As part of a wider job creation initiative called the B3K Prosperity collaboration, Kern Economic Development Corp. recently took on a leading role in activities like coordination of workforce-development partnerships. Next month it will roll out a new organization called the Manufacturers Alliance of Kern.
Progress has been slow compared with other B3K initiatives, and people working on the project’s manufacturing efforts are still trying to recruit a half-dozen companies to serve as local industry champions.
But hope is growing that shared vision will bring employers and educators together, and maybe lead to establishment of an open laboratory where small and midsize manufacturers can innovate new products and techniques.
Russ Huge, a Cal State Bakersfield business lecturer who worked in local manufacturing for more than 30 years, said he witnessed government and business in harmony when he worked in Shafter for Elk Corp. of Texas. His hope was that the new group MAK will go beyond that and make it easier for local employers to fill jobs and improve the overall industry climate in Kern.
Huge urged local manufacturers to get involved.
“This is just getting started, but for existing manufacturing businesses that want to become involved,” he said, “it would be great for them to reach out to KEDC and express their interest.”
A B3K market assessment last updated a year ago said manufacturing in Kern has emerged as a “growing strength” and possibly even a regional specialization at a time when industry challenges have eroded the sector elsewhere in California.
The report said manufacturing has been a driver of good local jobs for people without a bachelor’s degree. Even without coordinated efforts, the region is doing “reasonably well,” adding more than 500 positions from 2009 to 2019, even despite 375 layoffs in the subsectors of information technology and medical devices. The best performers were the subclusters of chemical production, plastics and metalworking.
B3K researchers pointed to Kern’s strengths in talent, boosted by access to people experienced in oil and gas work, and access to local training and educational programs at schools such as Bakersfield College. Business-friendly permitting, local logistics platforms and the potential for a new industrial park “reinforce the environment” conducive to growth in Kern County manufacturing.
But to achieve scale the effort will require ongoing focus and proactive strategy, B3K’s report said. It said that ideally the work would bring together commercial real estate developers, workforce programs and others, and that support would come from targeted government incentive programs and infrastructure investments.
KEDC was selected to house B3K’s continuing work on manufacturing in part because it already works with manufacturers considering expanding or moving to Kern. In that respect, the organization has seen a jump of as much as 25 percent in inquiries from outside companies potentially interested in setting up shop locally, KEDC President and CEO Richard Chapman said.
Kern’s “sweet spot” seems to be manufacturers with about 50 employees, Chapman said, adding that’s helpful because such companies have growth potential.
Next month’s launch of MAK will involve a meeting of local manufacturing educators. Chapman said the idea is to also have the group promote financing incentives and opportunities such as reduced raters from utilities, site-selection assistance and permitting help.
“We’re excited about the coalition,” he said.
KEDC hopes to see representation at next month’s event of five or six local employers. Chapman said three have come on board so far.
The organization has joined four or five industry conferences and plans to expand that, he said, adding, “I think the key is relationships.”
Because research and development are important in the industry, the alliance has a goal of establishing a manufacturing innovation hub offering specialized assistance as part of a kind of incubator. Chapman said it would offer low-cost access to welding and other industrial processes and space for small businesses.
“We do need that catalyst-like facility,” he said.
Opening a lab like that and making it available to businesses with fewer than 20 employees would provide a sizable boost to local manufacturing, said George Adam, director of sales at Bakersfield specialty fuel-tank maker Bryant Fuels Systems LLC.
It would reduce cost barriers to greater local innovation, Adam said by email, adding he could think of several local businesses that would benefit.
“Development costs to get a product approved for the marketplace too often delay the product reaching the market and consumer,” he wrote.
The acting general manager at Rio Tinto U.S. Borax’s mining operation in Boron, Renny Dillinger, said Kern’s new manufacturing alliance has potential to do a lot of good, including promoting partnership and spreading awareness of trade school programs already offered locally.
Dillinger said few outside the industry fully appreciate how good a destination Kern is for manufacturers, who he said are drawn to the area’s low cost of living, qualified workforce and general business friendliness.
He noted Rio Tinto U.S. Borax is developing a master plan aimed at bringing in other companies to “co-locate” and share resources as part of an “industrial park mindset.” So far, a liquid natural gas compression company has moved in, and he expects others will come.
“I can tell you, our location is an absolutely amazing location to come do value-added manufacturing or other heavy industrial activity because of our access to skilled labor, the great support from our community and the county and our land zoning,” Dillinger said.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to clarify that Dillinger’s position is considered an interim appointment.