What Work Looks Like in the Bay Area in 2020

Waitpeople are struggling, tech is hot, and solar may be the next big thing.
Jobs
Illustration by James Olstein

HAVE YOU NOTICED your cocktail or starter is taking a bit longer to get to your restaurant table? Before you respond with a paltry tip, be aware that the reason probably isn’t negative server attitude, but a dwindling of server numbers.

The average waitperson in a Bay Area restaurant can expect a median annual salary of $31,000 including tips, with possible perks including flexible hours and a lively work environment. Unfortunately, the high cost of living has made it increasingly hard for employers to hire and retain waitstaff. Jim Whaley of the Mill Valley gastropub Floodwater is one recent example: the challenge of staffing was quite substantial when he opened, he says.

In 2019, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated the fair market rent on a one-bedroom home in San Anselmo at $2,420 per month — which over a year would equate to roughly a server’s entire pay. As result, many people commute to wait tables here, then eventually quit to seek positions closer to home. In fact, Marin County’s population fell by 699 in the last fiscal year, putting it behind only four other California counties for the greatest drop in that period.

Still, whether you’re looking for restaurant work or a C-level career change, an array of opportunities do exist right now in Marin. From corporations like Autodesk and BioMarin to the service sector, it’s actually a good time to look for employment here. In October and November, Marin’s unemployment rate held steady at 2 percent — even lower than the overall statewide record low of 3.9 percent during that time.

Yet even low unemployment can have negative consequences. Solina Walton, owner and CEO of Larkspur’s Perfect Timing Personnel Services, has been helping Marin employers and job seekers connect for 31 years. At the moment, she says, the talent pool is definitely a touch shallow. “Right now, in Marin, I have a ton of clients who are struggling to fill their jobs. That’s because the people they really want to hire are already employed, with salaries and benefits that they will be expected to match. These are people who are not going to leave their job for an increase of 5 or 10 percent. They want to up the ante.”

These days, work-seekers walking through her door include new college graduates and employees looking to shorten their commute. She doesn’t see a lot of seniors, even though the county’s workforce includes retirees looking for part-time work and parents reentering the job market after raising kids.

In the past, many have turned to freelancing. But despite Marin’s history as a haven for the self-employed, that contingent faces challenges in 2020. California’s new gig-work law, AB5, which took effect at the start of the year, makes it harder for employers to classify workers as independent contractors — affecting journalists and Lyft drivers alike, leading companies to cut ties with California-based contractors, and spurring several lawsuits now working their way through the courts.

For traditional-job seekers, Marin County’s biggest employers include College of Marin, Macy’s and Glassdoor, a Mill Valley company that posts salary details and other job-related data online. If technology is your thing, options abound; that sector remains hungry for fresh talent in software engineering and artificial intelligence. Expect grueling hours, great benefits, and a salary actually conducive to living in the Bay Area. According to Glassdoor senior economist Daniel Zhao, the Bay Area’s tech industry had 26,000 openings in December; surprisingly, that reflects a 5 percent decrease year over year.

“It’s a lull,” he says. “But given that it’s still the largest industry by demand, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” And “given how large the sector is, I would expect it to continue growing this year.”

It’s also a great time to be a doctor. Glassdoor’s December jobs report notes that local health care industry positions increased by 9.9 percent for the month. Yet there’s a shortage of qualified primary care doctors — a problem apt to become pressing with a projected 75 percent increase in people over 65 needing senior care by 2030.

“We are doing well recruiting primary care doctors, primarily because Marin is such a desirable place to live and work,” says Eric Pifer, M.D., chief medical officer at MarinHealth. “Seniors with more intensive medical problems require more care … the aging of the population will as much as quadruple the need for primary care doctors.”

A few nascent industries may become major workforce players in the coming decade. Solar photovoltaic installer positions could be the top-growing job classification, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with available positions as of 2016 expected to double nationwide by 2026. That’s great news for California, which in 2018 offered more solar energy jobs than other states, about 24 percent of the nationwide total. The work, which is labor-intensive and requires physical fitness and typically some technical training, pays about $50,000 a year. In Marin, meanwhile, qualified candidates remain hard to come by for many jobs, businesses try to fill positions, and with entry-level salaries not covering cost of living, companies still expect workers to commute — a tenuous situation at best. Yet opportunities in new areas ranging from cannabis to cryptocurrency show promise. And Walton of Perfect Timing expects things to improve. “I’ve weathered this market for 32 years,” she says, “and it always bounces back.”

WORKING IN THE WEEDS

Elise McRoberts of Mill Valley would love to work closer to home.

Originally from Chicago by way of Minneapolis, she’s lived on and off in Marin for the past six years. During that time, her career has been defined by cannabis. In 2013, she began working with pot brands and serving as a judge in growing competitions; now she’s chief of brand and marketing for Berkeley cannabis manufacturer Doc Green’s.

Prior to that, McRoberts was doing similar work for a cannabis delivery service in Marin that has since closed. And while she loves her current job, she says it’s a shame the county has dragged its feet in welcoming recreational marijuana sales. “No commercial or industrial activity is permitted in Marin, which is why most of my cannabis colleagues in Marin and I commute to Berkeley or Oakland to work for licensed cannabis operations every day.”

Beyond the jobs retail dispensaries here might generate, she says, such a pivot would also reflect the region’s role in the annals of pot culture. From beat poets to the teens who coined the phrase “420,” the plant has roots in this place: “Marin is one of the original birthplaces of the modern cannabis revolution, so one would think cannabis would be appreciated here, but not yet,” she says. “Residents are super confused and frustrated. They want to know why there are no stores.”

THE SHEPHERD OF MUIR BEACH

It started with two ewes and a ram. A dozen years ago, John Koene saw purchasing these animals as a great use of his brother’s spare land in Sebastopol. The first lesson he learned about caring for livestock? “They multiply,” Koene says. And quickly. “They multiplied to about 10 sheep in just a couple of years, and then my brother and sister-in-law divorced and I moved [the animals] to Petaluma. I also bought more, and they just kept procreating.”

For over a decade, the longtime Muir Beach resident and Wisconsin transplant has incorporated his ever-growing flock into his landscaping business. Koene’s sheep work for their keep by taking on contracted grazing work, for San Rafael’s Las Gallinas Water District as well as San Leandro’s Juvenile Justice Center.

In the latter case, the incarcerated young men liked the presence of Koene’s sheep so much that he donated some to the center when the work contract ended. He has sheep, Nigerian dwarf goats and a pair of llamas all currently housed at Big Mesa Farm in Bolinas.

Unfortunately, aggressiveness of local mountain lions may require him to rethink the viability of his enterprise. “There are people here in Muir Beach who would like to have their hillsides grazed again, but I’ve gotten pushback from neighbors, believe it or not,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Koene plans to employ his llamas for a summer sojourn on foot. “I’m going to do the John Muir Trail this summer. I’ll either do the whole thing or part of it, but I’m going to use one or both of my llamas as pack animals. I’ve been training to do that with them.”

THE UNDERWATER FIXER

When people ask Mill Valley’s Patrick Dodson what he does for a living, he usually just tells them he works in construction. That way “they can picture me counting nails to build a house and move on,” he says. “It’s pretty rare that I actually bring up what I do because it does tend to take over the conversation.”

That can happen when you make your living as a commercial deep-sea diver, which Dodson has done for 20 years. Tasked with certifying, repairing and welding oil rigs and other seaborne structures, sometimes hundreds of feet underwater, Dodson came upon his profession somewhat inadvertently.

Originally, he simply wanted to find work while following his then-girlfriend — now wife — to Santa Barbara, where she was set to attend college. “I didn’t even really know what diving was,” he recalls. “I wasn’t even a certified scuba diver before I went to dive school, but it worked out well.”

In the past two decades, Dodson’s work has taken him around the globe to Greece and Guatemala, often for months at a time. These days he works exclusively in Pacific waters from Alaska to Mexico, so he can spend more time with his wife and four children.

Though the stints are lengthy, it’s hard to beat the change of scenery, he admits. “All the jobs are different, which is a nice thing. It’s definitely not like showing up to the same office every day.”


Zack RuskinZack Ruskin writes on music, cannabis, and culture. His bylines include Vanity FairBillboardEntertainment WeeklyVarietyMerry Jane, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Danielle, and their cat, McCovey.

Categories: Feature Story, Marin Matters