Last month, business news company Bloomberg released its annual Brain Drain Index. It uses Census data to analyze which American cities are losing advanced degree holders, white-collar jobs, and STEM career opportunities. Topping that list this year is Hanford, California.
Shelsy Hutchison, a teacher with the Business Academy at Sierra Pacific High School, has a few ideas why Hanford might be at the top.
Every year, she has her students shadow professionals, but sometimes she has to look way beyond Hanford.
“It's hard a hard task for the kids because they have to find their own transportation for that day, and I have kids last year that went all the way up to Clovis, Fresno, Madera, even to San Francisco to Google,” says Hutchison. “We have students that really, the reality sets in like, ‘Oh I couldn't stay in Hanford even if I wanted to. Because there are no options for the career choice that I have.’”
She says her students who aren’t pursuing careers in agriculture really struggle to find their niche.
“I know there’s been a lot of talk where, because it's so much cheaper to live here that it might be a place where a big businesses can come and run their manufacturing or run their business and they could have quite a bit of individuals,” she says of the labor force. “ It’s just, we have to get more people to come with the degrees so that the business says, okay, yeah well there’s people that can fill the jobs.”
Some of the students taking her classes say Hanford can’t support their career dreams, like Kaitlyn Thayer. She’s planning to attend college in Southern California before going to law school.
“Being an attorney and then eventually a judge is just something I've always been really interested in,” Thayer says. “I really like my small town of Hanford and I really think that even branching out to Fresno, which isn't that small of a city either, I think it's a great career choice because in Hanford you don't get a lot of civil court cases. Not as much as you would get in Fresno.”
Student Micah Campos is also planning to head to Southern California.
“I want to go to L.A. to see if I can find something there. There's not a lot of people or businesses here that are in film,” says Campos. “I know that there's one person here that’s a videographer, maybe two or three, but I would probably like to come back and maybe do something in the film industry here. It'd be pretty cool.”
But Lance Lippincott with the Kings County Economic Development Corporation says the region has some great opportunities.
“One of the the coolest water engineering jobs I've heard of in the county is out at the Surf Ranch. Where would you think, in the middle of the Central Valley there's a surf Ranch that needs hydro-engineers in order to build a wave? Build the perfect wave,” Lippincott says. “And those guys are doing it and board shorts and flip-flops half the time.”
Lippincott disagrees with Bloomberg’s premise. He says, even the agricultural companies in Hanford are becoming more technology driven.
“If you look at what's the traditional, classical definition of white-collar: banker, lawyer, doctor, everything like that. I think that definition has evolved. You've got farmers who are doing application-based, using iPads and everything else, irrigation.”
He says, that agriculture-based economies aren’t comparable to tech giants, like San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
“It’s kind of like, not to put it simplistically, it's kind of like boxing. Boxing has weight classes for a reason. You wouldn't put a heavy against a featherweight because that doesn't make sense.”
But Bloomberg reporter Vinny Del Giudice says that Hanford shares traits with those bigger cities, like a business district and nearby suburbs. In fact, Bloomberg looked at over 400 metropolitan and micropolitan communities altogether.
Del Giudice says that Hanford intrigued him.
“It was just an area of California that's ignored maybe. It's not along the coast, it's another part of the state and there's a lot of promise, like many places do,” says Del Giudice. “And we thought that was a good angle to lead with.”
Del Giudice says communities have moved on and off the Brain Drain Index over the years, so the ranking isn’t, in his words, “a death sentence.”
“In many cases we talked to cities on the Brain Drain list, they're turning around. They were cities, I should say, or regions that were dependent on single industries.”
Del Giudice knows the Central Valley has been experiencing a drought, and that has likely contributed to job loss.
Darrel Pyle, Hanford’s City Manager, says that it’s not just that agriculture has dominated the city’s economy. There are limited education options beyond high school.
“Obviously if we had a four-year university in Kings County, we would be more competitive on some of those technical career opportunities,” says Pyle. “I think we're a ways away from getting a four-year university in Kings County, but that's a battle we will continue to fight until our students have easier access to upper education.”
That’s partly why Thayer and Campos, the students we heard from earlier, are planning to leave Hanford after graduating.
But then are those who will return, like Noah Frank. His plan is this: “Eventually, after I get out of the Navy to become a US history teacher and most likely come back here to Hanford and teach.”
Frank has lived all over the country, but he says Hanford is where he wants to put down roots. However, there is one job he’s hoping for that he would have to leave the Central Valley to pursue.
“One day it would be a dream for me to run for president of the United States,” says Frank. “It's always something I wanted to be and go into politics maybe after education, but who knows.”
Frank is optimistic about Hanford’s future, and that’s just the vote of confidence the town wants to hear more of.