Sunny with a chance of tech

Economic Forecast Conference predicts mechanical solutions to rising cost of business; plus, more on that finger

Last Thursday, I spent the day at Gold Country Casino—not gambling, though I did throw a few bucks in one of the slot machines, to no avail. No, I was there to attend the annual North State Economic Forecast Conference, organized by Chico State’s Center for Economic Development.

In all, the outlook is sort of optimistic, though most of the sessions I attended seemed to focus on seeking solutions to problems in order to overcome shortcomings when it comes to jobs and job opportunities. Here are some key takeaways from the conference:

• The region has pretty much reached capacity for accommodating new jobs being sought by college grads in the area. Result: They are looking elsewhere.

• The minimum wage increase, while painted as a positive, could hurt as well as help. A study of the city of Seattle’s recent minimum wage increase showed that when the change was implemented, employers cut down on employee hours by 9 percent. The study also found that for every $1 of increased earnings, workers were cut back in hours enough to lose $3 in actual pay. Speaker Jacob Vigdor of the University of Washington broke it down: “There is no evidence that workers have more money in their pockets. Hours are getting cut disproportionately to the wage increase.”

• Technology is taking a front-and-center role in solving problems related to employee costs, including higher minimum wage and benefit requirements. That’s resulting in things like the Starbucks app, which allows customers to order and pay on their smartphones, eliminating payroll hours for a human employee.

• Regulations, in particular those affecting immigrant workers and overtime pay, are affecting local agriculture businesses significantly, to the point where there are not enough workers. Despite cries that farms should hire domestic employees, an ag panel at the conference agreed that domestic workers are not willing to do the labor that they need done.

• Tech is also coming into play in the ag industry. To tackle a lack of workers as well as increased costs of doing business, farmers are looking to automate as much as possible. One of the panelists predicted that California will see the diversity of crops drop significantly in the near future. If crops are able to be cultivated elsewhere, they will be and California farmers will focus on those that are less labor-intensive.

Finger update Thanks to input from a knowledgeable reader, I’ve learned a little more about the statue that sits outside the CARD Center on Vallombrosa Avenue. I wrote about it a few weeks ago after a clever local stepped up and, using a 3-D printer, re-created a finger that the statue was missing (see “The future is now,” Jan. 11). I put it in the context of other public art pieces that are in need of repair. Turns out that while this installation is certainly publicly enjoyed, it was entirely privately funded. Friends and family collected the money to construct the bench in honor of Calvin “Doc” H. Layland, who founded the Mangrove Medical Offices.