Today, I’d like to welcome California State Assemblyman Heath Flora. Heath is a life-long farmer, firefighter and business owner. He was raised on a farm and has been a small business owner and volunteer firefighter for CAL FIRE for more than 15 years, where he currently is a Battalion Chief. He has also been active in trying to bring better paying jobs to the region through partnerships with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. While serving in the Legislature, Heath has worked to improve public safety in California, as well as to give hard-working farmers a voice in Sacramento. He has been a keynote speaker at the Valley AgTech Summit. As the Minority Floor Leader, Heath ensures fairness and justness in the legislative process in the Assembly. Heath serves as the Vice Chairman of the Committees on Natural Resources and Labor & Employment, as well as sitting on the Agriculture, Rules and Business & Professions committees.
Q: Assemblymember Flora, can you tell us why you feel that it’s important to increase our technology training and CTE (career technical education) initiatives here in the Central Valley?
A: I grew up on a family farm in West Modesto and got involved in the fire service after graduating high school. I’m still a farmer and involved in the local fire service. Not everyone is going to go to college and get a four-year degree. We need more educational options, whether it’s stackable certificates or career technical education. A trained workforce is one of the best ways to attract new companies to the Central Valley. Technology jobs are some of the highest paying, fastest growing jobs in our country today, so quickly expanding our local tech workforce is key to attracting innovative high-wage companies to the Central Valley. Many tech jobs no longer require a full four-year degree. In fact, we now have local free programs that can train someone for a new tech job in less time than it takes to get certified to cut hair, so this is creating amazing opportunities for our residents. Also, most traditionally non-tech industries important to the Valley’s economy, such as healthcare, agriculture, food processing, trucking and construction, are increasingly reliant on technology and advanced software to remain competitive and need technology workers to drive their continued growth.
Q: As you mentioned, training large numbers of tech-capable workers will not only attract more employers to our region, new skilled workers will also benefit local companies who are hampered by the same severe tech talent shortage impacting the country. What state and regional programs are currently working to expand our skilled and technology labor force?
A; The state of California currently has several grants supporting adult education and CTE programs, but we need to do more. Knowing that it is primarily a local skilled labor force that will attract new employers to the Central Valley, I will be actively working with my colleagues at the State this year to increase CTE and other technology-focused funding for our region. On a local level, the Stanislaus County Office of Education is very innovative, partnering with training organizations such as VOLT and others to expand skilled training opportunities. They also recently signed a six-figure agreement with Workforce Development to increase more software development paid internships for Stanislaus County. Education is the great equalizer in our society. We need an educated citizenry to be a successful nation and a successful Central Valley. I look forward to continuing supporting these crucial education initiatives.
Q: The Central Valley already has a number of tech-related initiatives such as the Valley AgTech Summit, for which you have been a keynote speaker, Tech Connect and Women Techmakers. How can you and other legislators support these existing efforts and accelerate their expansion?
A; We must work with our colleagues from across California, so they gain an understanding of the Central Valley and its ability to contribute to our state’s leading tech economy. The broader Central Valley is really a unique region with a highly motivated workforce and unlimited potential. With a population exceeding those of 30 other states in this country, we need adequate resources to address issues like infrastructure, education and workforce development. We already have significant momentum with hundreds of new software developers in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties already trained and beginning to enter the workforce over the last couple of years. By strengthening relationships with leaders across California and making them more aware of the Central Valley’s many growing tech and agtech initiatives in need of funding support, I can help build a larger coalition to work on our region’s behalf. Having folks like State Controller Betty Yee and Assemblymember Robert Rivas attend the Valley AgTech Summit has helped put the region on their radar. My team also will be actively looking for grants that can support our local tech initiatives throughout this year.
Q: Do you see an opportunity for federal, state and local agencies to coordinate efforts to fund expansion of the Central Valley’s skilled and technology workforce? What other agencies do you think could be helpful with this initiative?
A; Usually, governments’ problem is they are too involved or have too much red tape and regulation. Our community and our region, however, has specific needs in education and in job training that are the perfect opportunity for our local office of education to work with a local chamber of commerce or a local business, to better prepare young people for the workforce. Volt Institute in Stanislaus County is a great example of that public and private partnership. Opportunity Stanislaus, Modesto Junior College and the Stanislaus Office of Education have worked together to create an award-winning regional program, Volt Institute. Volt has a proven record of success in career technical education and will continue to be a model for workforce development across California. At the federal level, Congressman Josh Harder recently helped sponsor an apprenticeship bill that will help students in our area. I see a tremendous opportunity for city leadership, county leadership and larger private employers in the region to collaborate on more tech and skilled labor programs as well. I would be happy to facilitate planning discussions with other leaders this year to work on expanding funding for tech education and internship programs that can benefit our region.
Q: 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. Can you tell us about efforts at the state level to incentivize California companies to invest in the Central Valley and keep high-wage jobs in California?
A: To be honest, we have a long way to go here. Decades of under-investment in skills training programs have created a situation where high-paying Bay Area companies continue to ignore the Central Valley in their expansion plans. Many organizations are working to change that though. In addition, we have been historically overlooked by Sacramento from a funding perspective. We are a fast-growing region, however, and the Central Valley now has more voters than we’ve ever had before. My team is having some success getting Sacramento to focus on our region’s unique needs. Our local leaders have also done a great job using the resources available to them to grow our regional economy in a positive way. With California being the highest taxed state in the nation, it’s difficult to retain the businesses we do have. Many areas throughout Modesto and the surrounding cities have now been designated as Opportunity Zones, which gives businesses an added incentive to invest in the region. Tax breaks for small businesses would benefit job retention in California as well, but the best thing we can do is to work together and quickly get our labor force ready to compete for tomorrow’s jobs and leveraging it to attract good companies into the Central Valley.
Q: Can you describe any current outreach or awareness-building efforts to position the Central Valley as an attractive investment option for Bay Area companies?
A: The Central Valley’s annual AgTech Summit, organized by the National Ag Science Center, Opportunity Stanislaus and Bay Valley Tech, has been a great success and is starting to get the attention of those outside of our region. I’m proud to play a part in making our Valley a better place to work and live through my work on the Natural Resources Committee in Sacramento. These efforts will help position the Central Valley as a region where people want to live and employers should be considering for expansion. We are also coordinating efforts with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group to increase awareness of our region’s strengths to Bay Area-based companies. Bay Valley Tech’s approach of building up a strong, highly sought-after tech talent pool in the Central Valley and reaching out to specific executive decision-makers at individual companies is bearing fruit as well.
Q: What other upskilling initiatives do you think is important for our region to invest in?
A: As I mentioned earlier, most industries are becoming heavily reliant on workers who are tech-literate, so technology education is the way of the future. All local school districts should be focused on ensuring that students are prepared for the new economy. I’ve seen great things come out of some of our local high schools like Johansen High School in Modesto and its Agriculture Academy. Also, the Software and Systems Development Pathway at Enochs High School has been a great success for our community. Building on programs like these will enable the Central Valley to remain competitive in emerging industries such as agtech and construction tech. These skills-based pathways and academies can also prepare students for lucrative, rewarding careers without assuming oppressive college debt.
Heath Flora is a life-long farmer, firefighter and business owner with real world experience. He was raised on a farm and has been a small business owner and volunteer firefighter for CAL FIRE for more than 15 years, where he currently is a Battalion Chief.
While serving in the Legislature, Heath has fought for improved public safety in California, as well as working to ensure hard-working farmers have a voice in Sacramento. As the Minority Floor Leader, Heath ensures fairness and justness in the legislative process in the Assembly. Heath serves as the Vice Chairman of the Committees on Natural Resources and Labor & Employment, as well as sitting on the Agriculture, Rules and Business & Professions committees. Heath is able to provide fresh perspectives to policy debates and the legislation related to these areas.