Gold mining jobs are coming to Mojave, Calif. Run-up in gold, silver prices causes Golden Queen Mining to restart operation.
David Rubio stands high on a hill looking over the desert, where hundreds of white wind turbines spin in the dry air.
Rubio promises that he'll soon be hiring, but the jobs won't involve those high-tech windmills. The work will be in the mine shaft beneath him, where his employer, Golden Queen Mining Co., plans to extract millions of ounces of gold and silver.
Alternative energy projects such as wind farms and solar installations get most of the attention these days, but the good earth is doing its fair share in helping Kern County pull slowly out of its economic slump.
The run-up in gold and silver prices over the last year has led Golden Queen to reopen this mine in the desert. On the other side of the Tehachapis, farmers in Kern County and elsewhere in the Central Valley are planting more crops and hiring more workers, thanks to deep snows in the Sierra Nevada and the abundance that means for water supplies.
Higher oil prices are also giving a boost to the companies that extract petroleum from the many fields across Kern County.
"They're way ahead of the curve," economist John Husing said about the county, pointing to the strong agriculture and oil presence there as the reason for growth. "They added jobs last year where a good part of Southern California hadn't started yet."
The strength of Kern's commodities is providing a modest ray of light in a county that has seen its share of economic turmoil. The county's unemployment rate generally fluctuated between 14 percent and 17 percent in 2009 and 2010, depending on farm employment, but is down from its high of 17.8 percent in March 2010.
Sales tax revenue in Bakersfield jumped 18.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010, driven by purchases of equipment for the petroleum industry, heavy industrial equipment and new cars.
Although prices of many commodities have retreated in recent weeks, they still are far above their levels of a year ago. Cotton, at $1.51 a pound, is up more than 80 percent over the past 12 months. Silver is up 80 percent.
Gold is up more than 21 percent from a year ago, part of the reason that Lutz Klingmann, president of Golden Queen Mining Co. in Vancouver, British Columbia, has gone through permitting processes to open the Soledad Mountain Mine. The company will also mine silver there.
"Commodity prices are a reason why it is a good time to be mining in California," Klingmann said.
When construction begins, the mine could employ as many as 200 workers. But even now it is pouring money into the local economy. Golden Queen has hired exploration drilling contractors and consulting geologists who stay in local hotels and eat at local restaurants.
Oil is up too, to nearly $100 a barrel, which creates demand for additional production from Kern County's oil fields. Occidental Petroleum Corp. is hiring 50 people in Bakersfield for a variety of positions, including working the company's Elk Hills field.
Already, mining and logging employment in the county is up 12 percent over a year ago.
Still, it could take a long time to produce enough jobs for the thousands of local workers who want them. Gerardo Aguirre, 49, has a certification in renewable energy but says he can't find a job.
His brother is also looking for work. Their fruitless efforts to find employment illuminate just how deep job losses are in California, even in regions well on their way to an economic rebound.
"I am so frustrated. Where is the justice?" Aguirre said. "I can't seem to get any work."