Bernick grew up in Los Angeles through Fairfax High School, and attended Harvard University (B.A. 1974), Oxford University (Balliol College, B. Phil. 1976) and the University of California, Berkeley Law School (J.D. 1979).
After graduating from law school, he spent much of the next seven years as executive director of the San Francisco Renaissance Center, a community job training agency that operated a series of literacy and vocational training classes, an early welfare to work program, and five business ventures providing transitional employment. In 1986 Bernick went into private law practice but remained a board member of several community job training agencies until being appointed EDD Director in 1999. Following the recall of California Governor Gray Davis, Bernick returned to law at the Sedgwick firm in San Francisco, and joined the Milken Institute as a fellow in employment policy. He continues to be active with several community job training agencies and work force intermediaries in California and with the Autism Job Club.
In the early 1980s, Bernick began a series of articles and books on job training and employment, written from the viewpoint of the practitioner. The Dreams of Jobs (1982) reviews the job training programs in San Francisco from 1960 to 1980, and was followed a few years later by Urban Illusions (1986), covering job training experiences at the Renaissance Center.
Bernick was an early proponent of what became welfare reform under President Bill Clinton, and of market-based approaches to vocational and literacy training. He also argued for strategies of inner city entrepreneurship and inner city loan funds.
After becoming EDD Director in 1999, Bernick continued to write about training strategies, particularly job ladders for low wage workers and employment for workers with disabilities. His 2006 book, Job Training That Gets Results is an attempt to summarize lessons learned from the job training programs of the past 50 years. It contains the themes of market-oriented training and entrepreneurship, along with the professionalization of the low wage workforces, role of extra-governmental entities, and restructuring of government social services structures.
After leaving EDD in 2004, Bernick’s practice and writing turned to worker retraining and reemployment strategies. In twice-monthly California employment postings dating from early 2009 for the website Fox & Hounds, he has chronicled the large scale job losses in California employment during the Great Recession and the transformation of California industries. In essays for Zocalo Public Square and other journals, he has examined a range of employment issues: the breakdown in full-time employment and rise of alternative forms of employment, the projected growth of the “non-knowledge economy,” the evolving forms of job placement, policies that restrict job creation, crowdfunding and anti-poverty impacts, and why most approaches today to wage inequality are ineffective. Since 2016, Bernick has been a regular contributor to Forbes on employment issues.
As a practitioner, Bernick joined with workforce intermediaries and businesses in designing worker retraining for growth occupations in engineering, health care, and information technology. He has designed re-employment projects, utilizing the emerging internet job search and placement tools, and projects of non-traditional apprenticeships and work experience approaches.
Bernick has been involved since 2004 in a series of projects involving adults on the autistic spectrum. He was part of teams developing programs for persons with autism at California State University East Bay and at William Jessup University. He helped develop The Specialists Guild, employing persons with autism in software testing, and the Autism Job Club, for building extra-governmental autism employment networks. In March 2015, The Autism Job Club: The Neurodiverse Workforce in the New Normal of Employment, was published, setting out individual and collective strategies for increasing employment among adults on the autistic spectrum. In the past few years, he has focused on forms of public service employment for adults on the autism spectrum, especially those who are more severely impacted.
In 1988 Bernick was elected to the board of directors of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail system and soon began to note the lack of land development linked to rail. With UC Berkeley Professor Robert Cervero, he established a research center at UC Berkeley focused on the link of land use and transit, and together they published a series of articles leading to their 1996 book, Transit Villages in the 21st Century. The book helped to develop and popularize the transit village concept.
Veteran Bay Area investigative reporters Matier & Ross wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in June 1996 that the newly elected BART Director Michael Bernick "accepted campaign contributions from BART contractors". And "excerpts of a federal wire tap [released in connection with indictments] showed that Bernick regularly talked to contractors about extending a deal for them at the same time they were helping to raise campaign contributions for his re-election."
In October 2015, the California State Library opened a collection of Bernick's writings and papers. The Collection includes over 200 articles by Bernick covering 35 years, as well as background material on his five books and two additional book projects-The Jobs Perplex and Real Work. The main section focuses on job training and employment strategies. The collection also includes sections on the transit village movement in California, autism employment and inclusion, California government, and the long distance running sub-culture of Southern California.