BY MANY MARKERS, California, and the Inland Empire in particular, are in good economic shape. According to a recent report from Beacon Economics, many of California’s regions now have lower unemployment rates than they did pre-pandemic. California’s labor market recovery has been stronger in the inland parts of the state, due in large part to the logistics sector, and net worth among the bottom 50 percent of earners increased 90 percent in the last two years, although wealth inequality remains far too high, the report says. “Near-term, the economy’s expansion still has momentum, driven by historically high household savings, low private sector debt levels, and the fact that policy makers have yet to truly withdraw stimulus funding,” says Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, who is also director of the UC Riverside School of Business Center for Economic Forecasting and Development.

He believes a recession is lurking in the future, though when it might occur and how bad it might be remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Inland Empire is proving that it can run with the big dogs. In December 2021, the UCLA Anderson Forecast noted that Southern California’s gross domestic product (GDP), the total value of its goods and services, clocked in at $1.6 trillion, making it the 13th largest economy in the world, wedged between Brazil and Australia. Even better is the fact that the Inland Empire led the charge with a 52 percent increase in GDP in 2021, outpacing neighboring counties. Plus, the region added nearly 48,000 people in 2021, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. “It was the fifth largest growth in the nation for major metropolitan areas,” says Jackie Melendez, who, in January 2022, became the first executive director of the recently formed Inland Economic Growth and Opportunity (IEGO) network.

The network, which was incubated by the Inland Empire Community Foundation, got its start in 2017 when local leaders from a variety of public and private fields came together to look at the issue of job quality, Melendez says. “The region was attracting businesses and starting to grow the local economy,” she says. But they were concerned if the jobs being created were “family-sustaining.” The group wanted to know how the region could increase the number of well-paying jobs and attract outside investors. From those questions, IEGO was created to help facilitate the long-term growth and prosperity of the Inland Empire, which is home to 4.6 million people. IEGO includes leaders from academia, govern- ment, community-based organizations, businesses and industries. “We work closely with economic develop- ment groups, UC Riverside, CSUSB, the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, and our work force development system,” Melendez says. One challenge to attracting higher-paying jobs is the region’s number of residents, just 21 percent, who have bachelor’s degrees.

By comparison, in Orange County,nearly 40 percent of residents have bachelor’s degrees; in San Diego County, about 32 percent do. Statewide, the figure is about 32 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But education is just one factor. To determine others, IEGO brought in the Brookings Institution, a private nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., to conduct extensive research that would help IEGO leaders decide what to focus on to keep the economy moving forward, and to make it resilient when the next recession, such as the one Thornberg predicts, delivers its punch. In 2019, Brookings released a report called “Advancing Opportunity in California’s Inland Empire.” It identified four sectors that Inland Empire leaders should put resources into to advance the economy: the established sectors of sustainable logistics and advanced manufacturing, plus the emerging sectors of green technology and cybersecurity.

The first three aren’t surprising, but cybersecurity? Melendez credits Cal State San Bernardino’s Cybersecurity Center, considered to be a pioneer in cybersecurity education. In 2008, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security designated CSUSB a Center of Academic Excellence (CAE) in Information Assurance. In 2021, CSUSB was redesignated as a CAE in Cyber Defense Education through 2028 and was recognized for specialty areas in Cyber Investigations and Network Security Administration. Some area community colleges in the region also offer cybersecurity courses, helping to make it a target growth field. Melendez says other businesses and industries, such as health care, are considered “horizontal” sectors and are also important economically. The timing of the Brookings report was crucial. Shortly after it came out, the pandemic hit, exposing a lot of cracks in the regional economy. One was economic inequality. One goal of IEGO is to make “lasting changes in our communities, especially those that have been disadvantaged or overlooked or where funding hasn’t penetrated as much into those places,” Melendez says. Another goal is to nurture the strong sectors, while preparing workers for the future.

For example, the logistics industry is a key player in the region. “One reason why during the pandemic our overall economy did relatively well is because we were still moving things,” Melendez says. But the question is about the quality of jobs the logistics sector offers and what will happen when some of those jobs are eliminated through automation, she says. “How do we get people and businesses ready so that we’re building a resilient economy so that we’re nimble enough to change with the technological advances that we see coming,” she says. Melendez says one way will be working with educational partners, such as community colleges, on certificate and career technical education programs. Another will be in entrepreneurship programs, such as the one at CSUSB. Government, business and community groups are also important members of the IEGO network. While reaching long-term economic goals can seem daunting, one thing is pretty easy: “We have great leadership and great amenities, and innovation abounds,” Melendez says. “We need to do better at telling that story” to attract outside investors.

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