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Broken Ladders: Climbing The Fresno Economic Ladder Can Be Difficult. This Is Why:

Americans are fascinated by rags-to-riches tales. However, Fresno, like many other American towns, has not demonstrated itself to be a city of opportunity, particularly for certain groups. Because of Fresno’s history of racism, segregation, and redlining, social and economic mobility is limited. Numerous studies show that our children’s outcomes are shaped by their neighborhoods — their schools, community, neighbors, local amenities, economic opportunities, and social norms — and that the hardest places in the United States to overcome poverty are usually cities and places where rich and poor people live in separate worlds. According to a 2019 analysis by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Fresno is the least ethnically and economically inclusive of California towns, ranking 59th out of 59. Fresno was ranked 253rd out of 274 cities in the United States in terms of total inclusion, 263rd in terms of economic inclusion, and 182nd in terms of racial inclusion.

Income segregation, inequalities in poverty and salaries by race and ethnicity, the number of persons working but yet living in poverty, racial disparities in home ownership, and the number of families spending more than 35 percent of their income on rent were all factors included in their study. Another study published in 2016 by a pair of Harvard University researchers indicated that the chances of a youngster growing up in poverty in the Fresno area reaching the top 20% income group in the metropolitan area was fewer than 8%. Fresno’s division is firm and unyielding, with the east-west highway Shaw Avenue (though many believe it is now Herndon) functioning as the city’s own “Mason-Dixon Line,” separating white and rich north from poor, Black and Hispanic south. Many people in Fresno are unemployed, underemployed, or underpaid, or have very limited options for gainful employment, as Michelle Skoor, chief workforce officer at Bitwise Industries, aptly describes them as “excluded people in undervalued areas.” So, who are the folks Michele Skoor of Bitwise refers to as “excluded”?

Immigrant, immigrant, immigrant, immigrant, immigrant, immigrant, im Not a college graduate, People who grew up in poverty, were raised in non-traditional homes, lived in high-poverty areas, or were once incarcerated.


Living in a good neighborhood with good schools and affordable housing, the availability of well-paying jobs, especially for people without a college degree, and the ability for a person to invest in themselves — whether it’s getting more education, having a safety net when times are tough, or having access to healthcare — are all factors that influence someone’s chances of moving up the economic ladder, according to researchers. In Fresno, the city’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens are still generally concentrated in the same areas as the city’s dirtiest factories, lowest-performing schools, failing infrastructure, and housing with the most livability issues and limited economic possibilities. About a third of Fresno citizens live in high-poverty areas, the nation’s second-highest rate. Fresnans who are black, Latino, or Asian are more likely to live in low-income areas. The difference in life expectancy between residents of affluent and impoverished communities can be as much as 20 years.

According to a Fresnoland review of state employment and earnings data, eight of the ten most prevalent occupations in Fresno do not pay enough in annual wages to afford a one-bedroom apartment at market rentals. There are just not enough well-paying positions in Fresno: according to a UC Berkeley Labor Center analysis of 2017 data, around 42% of jobs in the city are classified as “low-wage.” According to data from the Urban Institute, the racial educational attainment disparity in Fresno is 23 percentage points between white inhabitants with a bachelor’s degree and residents of color. In Fresno County, according to a 2018 research by PolicyLink and USC, there is a $10/hour wage disparity between white and Latino workers.


We discovered that, as tough as Fresno can be, the city is full of people who have a remarkable ability to overcome adversity and are making, in some cases, three times the minimum wage. What is the key to their success? Apprenticeships, career and technical education programs in regional high schools, and internship opportunities in disciplines like as technology, welding, construction, and health care are all available. Second chance programs are also available around the city, providing rehabilitation and new skills to persons who might otherwise be written off. In this series, we examine a variety of initiatives and solutions that are assisting in the improvement of economic possibilities for those who have traditionally been left out of Fresno’s economy. Good schools, decent affordable housing, a robust safety net, and a healthy neighborhood are all things that Fresnans deserve. However, we all know that a solid work can put someone on the correct track to financial security.


Consider Emelia Guadarama, a 39-year-old Fresno native who is now a Bitwise trainee on her way to becoming a program developer and earning at least $60,000 per year. Guadarama, like many other young people, had tried college directly after high school. “I took a lot of art and cinema lessons,” she explained. “I came to the realization that I actually don’t know what I want to do with my life.” She ended up in retail, working at places like Bath and Body Works and Macy’s, as well as “mall jobs” – all for minimum wage. She later moved on to a bridal shop, where she was assigned to the alterations department because she could sew a little. Guadarama “started thinking about a professional path” that would work for her at her age without having her to return to college after realizing she had gone as far as she was likely to go in her wedding store employment. The Bitwise apprenticeship is ideal for her. Miguel Hernandez, 23, is on probation for a crime he committed in 2019. He was “selling drugs and booze and getting into fights” until a few years ago, and he seemed to be going nowhere. The odds against him appeared to be insurmountable.

Hernandez was raised by his grandparents in a house full of aunts and uncles and other relatives who “kind of had their own issues in their own lives as far as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, issues with the law,” and “a lot of stuff going on.” Hernandez was born to a drug-addicted mother and an unknown father. He made it out alive. Today, Hernandez works for Bitwise Industries as an internet marketing analyst, and says of his transformation, “I stopped allowing negativity in my life to determine my path.” “I believe I just put myself out there a little bit more and took constructive criticism a lot more,” she says. He was given a second chance at life via Bitwise. Apprenticeships are becoming more popular because they give hands-on learning and technical teaching. According to the US Department of Labor’s website, more than 252,000 people nationwide entered the apprenticeship system in 2019; more than 633,000 apprentices were learning skills in about 25,000 registered apprenticeship programs across the country, and 81,000 apprentices graduated from the system. The number of apprenticeships increased by 3,133, a 128 percent increase over 2009. Despite Fresno’s obstacles, there are a slew of others enrolled in welding, construction, and automotive repair schools that are breaking through barriers to the middle class. Because of the thick protective gear and the noise from the hissing flames, it was impossible to tell welders from would-be welders at the Gladiator Welding apprenticeship program in Easton, but the excitement in the workshop was palpable.

“Welding itself provided me opportunities,” Jose Morales, 24, an Olston Steel welder, said of his new talents. “Now I recognize the worth in myself.” His new bosses had inquired as to how much he wanted to be paid. “I honestly didn’t know how to respond to that.” I honestly didn’t think so. ‘I guess, like $20, I guess?’ I said. I’m not sure. Morales added, “And they handed me $23.” “And I understood that now that I can perform this welding, I’m more useful.” “This [welding] is a trade that I wanted to pick up on to help me find myself,” Mubarak Hackett, a 19-year-old apprentice who recently graduated from Edison High, said.


Career and Technical Education, according to Mike Betts, chairman of the Fresno Business Council, dramatically promotes economic mobility by providing more career tech routes in schools and focusing instruction on technical and academic abilities needed for a high-demand career. CTE programs, which are often arranged around a broad subject, interest area, or industry-approved training pathways, connect learning to students’ interests and professional aspirations, preparing them for competent employment immediately after graduation. Engineering, information and communication technology, agriculture, building and construction trades, health sciences and medical technology, manufacturing and product development are among the 14 California industry areas that Fresno Unified offers programs in. “These programs provide students with the necessary skill set, so if they complete the program successfully, they should be ready to enter the workforce,” Betts said. Students in CTE programs receive certification, which provides as “evidence to the business that the students have truly passed the rigorous skills that the organizations require,” according to Betts. This allows them to “advance up the ladder.”

“These students are graduating with confidence, competence, and the right life skills,” he remarked. “It’s fantastic.” FORMERLY INCARCERATED PEOPLE GET A SECOND CHANCE After serving 17 years in jail on a second-degree murder conviction, Christopher Williams, 37, is trying to find a way to make a living. Williams attributes his erratic behavior to a squandered childhood, which included a drug-addicted mother and the worry of where his next meal would come from. Williams is now ready to share his story of redemption and second chances. He now works as a supervisor at the Center for Employment Opportunities, a non-profit that assists persons who have been jailed in finding work. “Hardworking folks who just need an opportunity,” says Rochelle Trujillo, site director for CEO in Fresno. We discovered pockets of opportunity in apprenticeships and second chance programs across the city – in fields like technology and welding; in programs that provide rehabilitation and new skills for those who would otherwise be written off; in internship programs that provide much-needed on-the-job training; and in upward mobility programs in local community colleges and high schools — all of which are improving mobility out of poverty.

THE NEXT PART OF THE SERIES This series will look at Fresno-area programs – training and support services — that offer options for training and skill acquisition in the coming weeks. We’ll walk you through the process and show you how each initiative has succeeded, spotlighting people who have been personally involved. Bitwise, a firm that is bringing technology to “those frequently ignored regions — cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Merced — and demographics that are rarely associated with high technology,” is the first initiative to be featured. ADDITIONAL PROGRAMS TO BE PRESENTED Gladiator Welding is a free apprenticeship program that offers welding experts 15 weeks of hands-on training and certification.

The Center for Employment Opportunities assists formerly jailed people in finding work and reintegrating into their communities. PROGRAMS ALIGNED WITH SCHOOL Technical and academic abilities required for a high-demand career are the focus of Career and Technical Education. Engineering, information and communication technology, agriculture, building and construction trades, health sciences and medical technology, manufacturing and product development are among the 14 career pathway programs offered by the Fresno Unified School District. For students participating in vocational programs at Fresno City College, Reedley College, and Madera Community College, Upward Mobility provides financial and material assistance, as well as career and academic counseling. Career Nexus works with unemployed youth ages 18 to 28 to determine their needs, connect them with training opportunities for needed skills, and finally connect them with potential employers.