RICHMOND -- As the economy in the Bay Area continues to rebound, the key challenge to sustaining growth and improving wages is in local approaches to enhance worker skills and productivity, according to an economist scheduled to deliver the keynote address at a two-day workforce conference scheduled for June 16 and 17.

"The competition within the labor pool is greater than ever," said Ira Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based consulting firm that works with businesses to help them hire the right employees. "The reality is that employees need to have better skills than ever before to compete and in a revolutionized workplace."

Wolfe, a prolific blogger and author of a book on labor issues, will serve as the keynote speaker at Saffron Strand's fifth annual Homeless Workforce Conference in the Richmond Memorial Auditorium. He will speak at 9:30 a.m. on June 16.

The conference, titled "Let's Get Serious -- Skills, Jobs, Careers as Paths out of Homelessness and Poverty," is billed as the only forum nationwide that annually explores solutions and provides professional training for getting the homeless and those at risk of homelessness back to work with new skills for sustainable employment.

The rest of the two-day program will include workshops and other activities with leading national and Bay Area employment experts detailing issues affecting the homeless and hard-to-employ workforce.

Founded in 2008 by Yvonne Nair, herself formerly homeless, Saffron Strand is a Richmond-based membership organization for homeless people that has gained acclaim for its annual conference and its approach. The group focuses on making clients "members" and giving them a range of mental health, job training and "soft skills" to make them more employable.

The program provides membership for free to homeless adults in return for their time and work at its center in Point Richmond.

Nair said the blue-collar city needs to do more to increase the skills of local residents to compete for jobs.

"Richmond businesses often would prefer to hire local residents but are unable to do so because the local workers are not work-ready," Nair said. "Even if the city can attract new businesses, those new employers must look outside Richmond for skilled workers."

Wolfe said his remarks will focus on worker insecurity in the dynamic, globalized economy and the need to focus on workforce development at the local and regional level. The city has tentatively passed an ordinance that will raise the local minimum wage to $13 by 2018, but Wolfe said that while legislation requiring higher minimum wages is the right thing to do "civilly and morally," it will have the unintended effect of reducing employment for workers if they don't get better skills.

"The bigger issue is how do we get funding to train workers and mechanisms to implement the training," Wolfe said. "The big failure in training programs and schools is people come out with certifications or degrees and expectation that earned them the job, but those days are gone; it's just a ticket to apply to a competitive field now."

Wolfe said "life skills" and motivation, like those touted in Saffron Strand, are nearly as important as technical skills.

The problem is particularly acute in Richmond, where the 11.5 percent unemployment rate dwarfs the 6.7 percent national average, according to state Employment Development Department statistics.

About one-third of Contra Costa County's homeless population is in Richmond. According to county statistics, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 residents are homeless at some point during the year and about 5,000 at any given time.

Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles praised Saffron Strand, which she said "creates a space to dialogue, network and learn best strategies."

"I worked with the homeless population for about five years when I worked at Rubicon Programs 14 years ago," Beckles said. "Our homeless population has not dwindled but has, in fact, increased."

Those interested in attending the conference can visit saffronstrand.org or call 510-275-9594.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.

if you go
What: Fifth annual Homeless Workforce Conference, "Let's Get Serious: Skills, Jobs, Careers as Paths out of Homelessness and Poverty"
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., June 16 and 17
Where: Richmond Memorial Auditorium, 403 Civic Center Plaza
Register: Visit saffronstrand.org or call 510-275-9594