Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom talks about higher education’s role in state economy at conference in Berkeley

Benny Grush/Staff
Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom gave the Welcome Keynote Address at the 5th Annual California Town & Gown Conference.

In a keynote address to attendants from cities and colleges throughout the state, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom focused on ways to strengthen California’s economy at the opening of the fifth annual Town & Gown Conference in Berkeley on Thursday.

Following welcome remarks from Mayor Tom Bates and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Newsom took the podium in the ballroom of the Hotel Shattuck Plaza in the Downtown to discuss the economic challenges California has faced in recent years.

“Between the 1950s and 1980s, California was the job generator in the United States,” Newsom said in his address. “In the last 30 years, we have flat-lined. We have become ‘about average’. This is a state of dreamers and innovators — we’ve always been on the cutting edge of new ideas.”

With an August unemployment rate of 12.1 percent, compared to a national average of 9.1 percent, the number of unemployed Californians is about 2,175,000 — an 8,000 increase from July, according to the California Employment Development Department.

According to the state’s Department of Finance, California’s economy currently weighs in as the eighth largest in the world — although Newsom proposed that this ranking may actually have receded to ninth or even 10th by now. Countries with growing industries such as Brazil, China and India are beginning to outpace California in the international market.

“We’re like the 32-year-old still talking about his high school days … we need to wake up to this reality,” he said.

Aside from the issue of outsourcing jobs to other nations, other states like Texas and Louisiana now represent competition in the state and national job markets.

While he discussed the opportunities presented by sustainable energy and creative industry, Newsom spent a significant portion of his speech on the importance of California focusing on education if it wants to be serious about improving and expanding the economy.

Recognizing this need, Newsom acknowledged the need to address tuition issues. Newsom said UC Regents gave up by “letting the state legislature off the hook” when they began discussing the possibility of raising tuition substantially for students in the coming years.

According to Newsom, there are thousands of vacant jobs in the technology industry waiting for qualified workers to fill them due to the fact that the higher education system is not producing workers with the necessary skills. Even with universities like UC Berkeley and Stanford University nearby, CEOs are complaining about a mismatch of skills, he said.

“The educational paradigm has to change to keep up with the rapid development of technology,” Newsom said. “It’s a challenge for universities everywhere, but if Stanford and Berkeley aren’t keeping up, then that’s worrisome.”

Steve Wright, communications vice president for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group — which represents more than 345 Silicon Valley companies on public policy issues — said the group does not blame the absence of “locally-grown” workers on failures of higher education but rather points to the lack of emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math education, also known as STEM, for students in elementary and secondary levels.

“We’d like to have more locally grown-people — lack of emphasis in elementary and high school has impacted (the) number of local people going into these fields,”Wright said. “STEM education is very important to an innovation economy and to Silicon Valley.

Adelyn Baxter covers city government.