Santa Cruz County jobs rebound, but housing costs and aging population remain challenges

Key regional industries such as healthcare, tourism, agriculture and education account for 6 in 10 jobs in the county. Those four industries had mixed job growth between 2020 and 2023, with agriculture seeing the largest job losses.

Key findings

  • The health care industry is expected to grow in part because Santa Cruz County’s population is trending toward aging. Residents age 60 and older increased by nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2023. By 2030, about 30 percent of the county’s population is expected to be age 60 or older. “The county’s aging population poses significant challenges to the county’s economy and workforce in the years ahead. It may contribute to a potential shortage of qualified workers in the future,” the report states.
  • The county’s population has declined roughly since 2017 and is now about 261,000 people, according to census data. Nearly 8,200 residents left Santa Cruz County between 2020 and 2021, representing a 3% population decline. After a small increase in 2022, it decreased by 2,300 people in 2023.
  • Housing costs have risen faster in Santa Cruz County than the California average. About 13% of county residents can afford a median-priced home in Santa Cruz County, and that percentage has declined dramatically over the past three years, according to the report.
  • Remote work in the county more than doubled between 2018 and 2022, rising from 7.6% to nearly 16%. Nearly 1 in 5 North Santa Cruz County residents worked from home in 2022. The county’s median annual salary was $69,700 in 2023.
  • “The cost of living in the county exceeds the county’s average annual wages,” the report states. “In county households with two working adults and two children, each adult must earn $86,778 to meet the MIT Living Wage Definition.” For workers in lower-paying jobs, such as food service, retail or care, that’s equivalent to working 1.8 full-time jobs.

Median home prices have increased and the share of residents who can afford such homes has decreased in Santa Cruz County. (Santa Cruz County Workforce Development Board, California Association of Realtors)

Workforce and Housing Trends

The report identified nonprofit organizations as a major source of employment. However, nonprofit jobs in the county grew modestly over the past five years, excluding religious organizations.

Salaries have not kept pace with the cost of living in the county, primarily due to the cost of housing. Other Central Coast counties are in worse condition.

  • According to the report, 1 in 8 county residents can afford to purchase a median-priced home in Santa Cruz County.
  • 1 in 9 San Luis Obispo and Monterey County residents can afford to buy a median-priced home.
  • 1 in 6 California residents can afford to buy a mid-priced home.

Potential solutions

“We have provided suggestions on how everyone can contribute to nurturing our workforce. Whether through cutting-edge educational programs, thoughtful policy changes, or grassroots efforts, everyone can play a role,” Stone wrote.

  • Communicate career paths and industries with significant growth opportunities, such as emerging, high-paying sectors in healthcare, biotechnology, defense, aerospace, transportation and manufacturing. “Demand for workers is expected to increase as an aging population drives an increase in demand for geriatric care. Increasing awareness among local job seekers can boost retention in these key industries,” the report said.
  • “Highlight the valuable contributions to workforce development that the nonprofit sector makes within Santa Cruz County. For example, Santa Cruz Works, a technology-focused nonprofit, has helped job seekers with more than 5,000 job placements since 2008,” the report states. It has hosted more than 400 events related to skills development and entrepreneurship.
  • Expand partnerships with key local nonprofit organizations to ensure job seekers have access to affordable housing, transportation, and other needs.
  • Support educational programs so that vulnerable groups can access the skills they need to find jobs with living wages. Skills include basic digital literacy, English as a second language, effective communication, and leadership. The report recommended supporting nonprofit organizations that can provide assistance.

“We see signs of optimism in emerging sectors, but this report highlights some of the challenges facing our workforce in terms of quality of work and their ability to live and “Raise families locally,” Stone said.

“The population decline should serve as a call to action to address these challenges head-on.”

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