Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

There’s no fast-track likely for Valley high-speed rail hiring

The prospect of California’s high-speed train project, and construction that could start as soon as next summer in the central San Joaquin Valley, seems to shine like a light at the end of the tunnel for many unemployed workers.

There’s been so much written about unemployment here in the Valley: the monthly unemployment figures from the state Employment Development Department, occasional stories about large-scale layoffs by companies in the Valley. It all gets a little overwhelming sometimes. But that’s nothing compared to the desperation of people who want a job but cannot find one.

Since Thursday, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority adopted a policy aimed at promoting the hiring of disadvantaged workers by contractors, my phone line and email have been lit up by wishful job-seekers wanting to know when, where and how they can apply for work on the massive infrastructure project.

I can hear the hope in their voices as they talk about seeing the story in the paper or on The Bee’s website, only to hear them go crestfallen when I have to tell them that no major hiring is likely to happen anytime soon.

What happened last week was a policy decision by the state rail authority, not a hiring decision by contractors. There are five teams of contractors who have until mid-January to submit their bids for the first stage of construction from Madera through Fresno. The policy lets those companies know what the state’s expectations are for hiring people from economically disadvantaged communities, or workers who themselves are disadvantaged by virtue of being in one of the following categories:

  • Homeless
  • Veteran
  • Single parent who has custody of a child
  • On public assistance
  • Lacking a high school diploma
  • Having a criminal record
  • Chronic unemployment
  • Apprentice with fewer than 15% of the necessary hours to graduate from a trade program

It’s unlikely that any of the would-be contractors will be doing any hiring until they know they’ve got the job. And the rail authority does not expect to award the major contract until next summer.

That’s not much comfort to the guy who wrote that he recently lost his job, or to the fellow who told me on the phone that he’s been out of work since 2009.

Still to come: The rail authority and its would-be contractors will have to come to grips with agreements that the companies already have with labor unions to hire union workers for the project. It’s yet to be seen to what extent that could be a problem for non-union businesses hoping to land work as subcontractors on the rail line, or how much of a potential obstacle it may be for workers here in the Valley.