How Salinas, Calif. leads the nation in well-paying jobs

Packing up and moving like the Joads did in "The Grapes of Wrath" might not be in your plans if you're searching for work, but you couldn't do worse than where the Joads ended up -- Salinas, Calif.

As I recently wrote for WalletPop, Salinas is first or second in pay nationwide in five of nine major occupational groups surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I've been through Salinas. And while it's beautiful and was where John Steinbeck wrote, I couldn't see how such a city in the Central Valley of California could lead metropolitan areas in the United States for well paying jobs. So, being the inquisitive reporter I am, I called a few people in Salinas to get some answers.

"Anyone who's looking to head West ought to look closely at us," Mayor Dennis Donohue told me.

Salinas is worth a closer look with such high scores in so many areas of the study. The national average for pay in the study is 100, so a city with a score of 129, for example, pays 29% better than the average U.S. city. Or another way to look at it is that workers there earn $1.29 for every $1 earned on average nationwide.

Here's how Salinas rated in the BLS study of 77 metropolitan areas. Listed are the major occupational groups that Salinas ranked high in, its ranking, and "pay relative" score.
  • Sales and related: #1, 129.
  • Installation, maintenance and repair: #1, 124.
  • Service: #2, 123.
  • Professional and related: #1, 120
  • Management, business and financial: #2, 113.
Of nine major occupational groups, Salinas ranked first in three categories and second in two areas.

Put it mostly on agriculture, officials said.

"We are the Salad Bowl of the World, they say," said City Manager Artie Fields. "As far as the agricultural industry is strong. This is the Silicon Valley of the agricultural business."

Those worldwide brands in agriculture pay well to keep their employees in Salinas, Fields said.

Professional sales divisions in agribusinesses are well paid for the important work they do, said Donohue, the mayor, who is president of a specialty vegetable grower in Salinas.

It's a city that is center to the $3.8 billion annual produce industry in Monterey County, is the county seat and home to two significant hospitals, the mayor said. Salinas also has the luck of being about a 20-minute drive from beautiful Monterey, less than an hour from San Jose, and in a beautiful valley that Steinbeck eloquently wrote about, he said.

With 146,143 residents and a median household income of $43,720, it also has 10.4% unemployment near California's 11.6% unemployment rate and falling housing prices.

Deanna Carvey, executive director of the Oldtown Salinas Association, said she has seen her home value drop 40% since buying at the peak in 2005. With home values dropping and the cost of living so high in Salinas and throughout Monterey County, employers need to keep pay high to keep workers, Carvey said.

Having competitive wages in a housing bust can lead to affordable housing, such as a group is doing with 26 acres downtown.

But cost is all relative. The median family home price in the county is $595,000, and a one-bedroom apartment can rent for $1,600 per month, said Tiffany DiTullio, president of the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"If you want people to live and work here you have to pay them well to be able to afford to live here," DiTullio said.

Produce brokers get big commissions, but "jobs are tight here" for many others, said Steven Carew, executive director of Salinas Unified Business Association, which focuses on improving the east Salinas business district.

The association has 600 small business members, and since they don't deal in luxuries, they're doing well, Carew said.

"Small businesses seem to be doing very well, because they represent everyday necessities," he said.

Entry-level workers and people in low-skills jobs aren't getting all of the benefits that living in the nation's salad bowl offers, however.

"I have not seen anybody offering high paying jobs," said the chamber of commerce's DiTullio. "If anything, we hear that starting pay isn't high enough."

Sounds like a story for Steinbeck to write about.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at
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