After three hours of listening to gripes from and brainstorming with a panel of more than 60 business leaders Friday morning, City Councilman Carl DeMaio said he emerged with ideas to make San Diego's work force "the most competitive in the nation."
DeMaio hosted the jam session, the second of three jobs forums, as part of his "Pathway to Prosperity" job creation plan.
This forum, held at the San Diego State University Alumni Center, focused on educating and training the local work force, and its panel included representatives from San Diego County Boys and Girls Club, San Diego Workforce Partnership, Urban Jobs Corp of San Diego County, Black Contractors Association and San Diego County Veterans Advisory Council.
After the meeting ended, DeMaio said the event made him realize the need for more partnerships between local universities, private and nonprofit job training organizations, and the San Diego Workforce Partnership to better train San Diego's workers.
"It looks like there are enough resources available, but they're not well coordinated," DeMaio said.
San Diego's "competitive edge" will continue to be its work force, DeMaio said.
"We have an envious locale, but our long term economic growth depends on delivering on that mirage," he said."Our long-term plan has to be about people. We have to be asking, 'How can we cultivate the local work force to be the most competitive in the nation?'"
The "mirage" metaphor was one DeMaio returned to repeatedly during the panel.
He used it to describe the pleasant lifestyle San Diegans lead, which disguises what he said was a harsh environment for businesses.
DeMaio said one element in that harsh environment is the inefficient permit processing at the city's development services department.
Other panelists agreed with him, but Tamara Badkerha from BSE Engineering said the process is not bad "if you know what you're doing."
Instead, Badkerha said the cost of living in San Diego is a problem.
"Try moving an engineer who makes $85,000 a year here from Florida, where he was living in a mansion," she said. "You'd have to pay him $150,000 a year to give him the same style of life. People don't want to be paid in sunshine dollars."
Panelists shared their ideas for training the local work force, especially youth and veterans, whose unemployment rates are 17 and 25 percent, respectively.
Michael Wiskerchen, the director of UC San Diego's California Space Grant Consortium, said his program, which joins schools, businesses and other private and public sector institutions, is one example.
But, he said, inconsistent funding puts his work in jeopardy.
Other ideas included an internship website, AllSanDiegoInternships.com, started by Blair Ward of Dwell Trends LLC; an entrepreneur incubator at SDSU; and DeMaio's own plan to start a “Hire-A-Youth” job training program for 5,000 students, which he said would work like the federal work study program.
Abdur Rahim Hameed from the Black Contractors' Association said another challenge is work force diversity.
For an example, he cited Turner Construction Co., one of the largest U.S. construction companies, which has a San Diego office of 137 employees.
Of those, three are African American, Hameed claimed.
Hameed also said if the city forgoes project labor agreements, those diversity numbers could get worse.
"When the city starts outsourcing its contracts, we don't have diversity protection," he said.
DeMaio agreed that diversity is an issue, but said the solution is to examine whether discrimination is present during the hiring process, not increasing regulations on businesses.
"The solution is not a mandate," he said.
To address the problem of unemployed veterans, DeMaio asked whether there are nonprofit employment agencies.
Chip Dykes from the San Diego County Veterans Advisory Council said there are nonprofits, but the problem is, there are too many of them.
The abundance of agencies means they fight for funding and do not provide services, Dykes said.
One of the problems causing unemployment is the military's reluctance to talk about transitioning into the work force, because it wants soldiers focused on the present, not the future, Dykes said.
Another problem, he said, is soldiers' lack of trust in the business world.
"The problem in transition is the military doesn't like you, the business community," Dykes said. "They don't trust you because you're trying to take their money."
Nick Popaditch, a retired Marine who ran for Congress in 2010, said to employ veterans, "you need to go right to the source." He said he was surprised DeMaio's first reaction was to use nonprofits.
"They make jobs for philanthropists and empty nesters," he said.
Matthew Camp, a former Marine who now works for the nonprofit Courage to Call, said the work force has not adapted to today's veteran.
"You want a bachelor's degree, well I have a bachelor's degree in combat," he said.
Michel Malecot, the owner of the restaurant The French Gourmet, said the catering industry would be a good transition space for veterans, and added he would like to hire veterans, but does not know where to find them.
Malecot pleaded guilty on Oct. 13 to employing illegal workers at his restaurant and faces up to six months in prison.
Aside from employee hiring, restaurateurs on the panel also cited other business problems, including licensing, permits and inspections.
Michael Linley, at attorney for the Moose Restaurant Group, said he has to apply for multiple permits that say the same thing, including alcohol and entertainment permits.
"It's that kind of constant repetition that bogs down the business," he said. "I know I'm probably talking myself out of a job here, but my bosses shouldn't feel the need to have an attorney on site."
DeMaio asked if the restaurant industry would be willing to pay for a website "e-wizard" that would create a process for obtaining permits online.
The panelists said they would and Wiskerchen added he could recruit UCSD students to work as interns on the website.
To close, DeMaio said while the San Diego Workforce Partnership is well respected, it needs to be better connected to the business community.
He also offered the panel and audience what he called his personal email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, but said, "don't be offended if you don't hear back right away."
While the jobs forum is paid for with city funding, the email DeMaio offered at the forum is linked to the website for his mayoral campaign, carldemaio.com.
But DeMaio said the email address is a personal one.
"No one sees it except me," he said.
DeMaio ended the forum by saying that while he had collected many good ideas, "the conversation is not over."