El Centro Continues To Struggle With High Unemployment

By Ruxandra Guidi
November 29, 2010

EL CENTRO, Calif. -- Sam Couchman was born and raised here, so he understands the reasons for the chronic unemployment. But many journalists, he says, are not doing their homework, and are failing to represent El Centro's complexity.

"I think you misunderstand a little bit about the frontier nature of our county. It was formed in 1907, it was one of the last frontier counties in California," Couchman said. "We're located on the Mexican border, we have a very limited population -- about 170,000 people -- but it's very small compared to Mexicali, which is over a million people now."

Couchman is director of Imperial County's Workforce Development Office, which has the monumental task of trying to reverse an unemployment rate that reached 30.4 percent this year. The bad news has attracted droves of journalists to this dusty frontier town, and the coverage, Couchman said is scaring locals away.

But James Garcia is still here looking for work. The 23-year-old has been unemployed for months and he's been coming to the employment office to search for local jobs.

"I was actually homeless for a while, and I'm getting my feet back together from a hard fall to positivity," he said, seated in front of a computer as he scanned a job bank website.

Garcia is hoping for a job at BestBuy, or at the local mall. Here's what makes competition for those jobs especially fierce -- only a fourth of El Centro's population has a college education, and Couchman said he'll have to compete with people from both sides of the border.

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Rows of winter lettuce are planted right outside El Centro.

"We have thousands of people who probably cross the border daily to work over here," said Couchman. "In the past 30 years or so, those were primarily agricultural workers. Now that runs the whole gamut: it's retail, it's construction, it's every job that you can possibly think of, and here it impacts us a lot because of the limited number of jobs that we have."

Just 10 miles away from El Centro, this border crossing near the Mexican city of Mexicali is where many of those workers come from. And around this time of year, many migrant workers make their way north through El Centro's small downtown surrounded by strip malls and miles upon miles of desert and cropland to pick winter lettuce in the fields. They make $8 to $10 an hour.

Many of them hold dual citizenship or commute regularly for work in agriculture and construction. Others buy and sell souvenirs, food, secondhand clothes, which makes up a bustling underground economy, according to mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker. She said the seasonal nature of farm work and this informal border economy explain the city's joblessness. And she says the 30.4 percent rate really isn't all that bad.

"That doesn't mean that 30 percent of those people or our community are chronically unemployed," said Viegas-Walker. "It very well means that there's a segment of our population that is unemployed at any given point in time."

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
A woman heads towards the pedestrian cross-border bridge in Calexico, 10 miles away from El Centro.

Viegas-Walker said the city is building a new headquarters for the fire department, and it hasn't laid off a single city employee in a year. In addition, El Centro is at work building a green energy future. Mayor Viegas-Walker's office is almost completely powered by the sun, and in spots around this desert town, more solar panels are going up.

"But right now we don't have engineers," said Mark Gran, Vice-President of CalEnergy, which operates 10 geothermal plants in the Imperial Valley. "And if we were to need them right now -- it's either get them from another company that's already working down here or import them from Mexico." CalEnergy is currently hiring welders, electricians, and heavy equipment operators.

Gran said the proximity to Mexico and a green economy will be key solutions to El Centro's unemployment woes. But the region has a long history to overcome. Even during good times, the unemployment rate in El Centro has been near 20 percent.