NORTH BAY -- At a time of reduced state funding for public education in California, some of the North Bay's largest and most influential employers are launching and supporting initiatives that seek to bolster programs for students from elementary school through the college level.

Those contributions, involving companies like Santa Clara-based Agilent Technologies and its division in Santa Rosa, have added up to major investments in equipment, facilities and in-kind volunteer hours, according to the company and those involved in its programs.

Many of those programs predate the current economic period. Yet those involved agreed that the recession and its related impact on school funding cast a spotlight on the significance of those public-private partnerships, with companies drawing a clear connection between robust education programs and the cultivation of a local talent pool for science and technology jobs.

"The recession made it very clear to the business community that partnerships with education are more important than ever," said Jeff Weber, a spokesman for Agilent in Santa Rosa who works closely on education programs. "Our economic future is tied to how successful we are in graduating students in these fields."

For Agilent, that support has come in forms that include direct financial contributions to regional education programs, donations of high-tech equipment to regional university labs, volunteer literacy and science tutors and the offering of its own facilities to host programs like the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce's Mike Hauser Algebra Academy, Mr. Weber said.

"The intent is to stimulate interest in science," he said. "Everywhere you turn in life, there is something that is engineered."

In terms of higher education, the company most recently donated $300,000 in electronic measurement equipment to University of California, Berkeley. The donation comes on top of a $200,000 contribution to Sonoma State University last fall, which itself was the latest in a history of donating more than $1 million in equipment to the school over the last decade, Mr. Weber said.

Those donations have allowed for the creation of a new lab under Sonoma State's engineering program that, when opened, will facilitate advanced experiments involving microwave and radio frequency communication technology, said Dr. Meng-Chi Su, engineering department chair.

Added to the more general-purpose equipment donated by the company, as well as a multi-week "Agilent Scholar" scholarship and mentorship program planned for this summer, the contributions enhance the real-world abilities of students and cultivate skills that are directly applicable for engineering hires at Agilent and beyond, he said. A scholarship was also recently extended to students at Santa Rosa Junior College.

"It helps us to develop a niche in the North Bay," Dr. Su said. "It's an extensive partnership between Agilent and us."

Allowing employees one hour of paid time off per week to support Agilent-backed causes has proven to be a popular measure, one that Mr. Weber said has been lauded in employee feedback from Agilent's inclusion in the annual North Bay Business Journal "Best Places to Work" awards. Anecdotally, those comments could point to a significant retention measure, he said.

Many of those causes supported by Agilent are centered on education in science, technology, engineering and math, an area commonly referred to as STEM. It is a field where many North Bay employers have expressed difficulty in procuring talent, with some taking proactive measures to reverse that trend.

A long-time recipient of support from Agilent's charitable foundation arm, the Math, Engineering, Science Achievement program known commonly as MESA, has been steadily expanding from the college level and this year expanded its STEM program to include middle school students, said Darci Rosales director of MESA at Santa Rosa Junior College.

In a first-ever summit event at Santa Rosa Junior College in March, Agilent engineers took part in STEM-related exhibits for more than 150 students in attendance. The program emphasizes outreach to Latino students, and support from companies like Agilent has been increasingly valued after state contributions dropped by nearly half in the past four years, Ms. Rosales said.

"We know that STEM-based industries are having huge workforce shifts and critical shortages. There's a huge untapped potential, particularly with Latino students, as a workforce that can be cultivated for the future," she said.

[caption id="attachment_73065" align="alignleft" width="385"] Students attend the grand opening of the Buck Institute's new on-site learning lab (photo courtesy Buck Institute/Robert Vente)[/caption]

Also among those in the North Bay that are aggressively investing in education is Novato's Buck Institute for Research on Aging. Most recently, the institute celebrated the opening of a new $500,000 on-site "learning lab," made possible by a donation from Buck Institute Trustee Larry Rosenberger and his wife, Diane, said Buck spokeswoman Kris Rebillot. The facility will give employees a space to conduct educational activities, and the organization noted that more than 1,700 students visited the Buck Institute for after-school programs and field trips in 2012.

The Buck Institute also offers fellowships and research opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students and paid summer internships for high school students, according to the organization. It serves as a host for a yearly algebra academy offered under the North Bay Leadership Council as well, which seeks to introduce English language-learners to practical applications for algebra.

"There's a lot going on at the Buck," said Ms. Rebillot about those education initiatives.

Other supporters of North Bay algebra academy programs include Redwood Credit Union, Kaiser Permanente, Lucasfilm, Pacific Gas & Electric and BioMarin, JDSU and Medtronic, among others. Many offer their own programs as well, including paid internships and other initiatives in support of regional education.