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PETALUMA -- When Gail Cochrane, co-owner of general engineering contractor RCX in Petaluma, hired two out of the local high school with skills-aptitude certificates from a national construction training organization, she knew what she was getting.

[caption id="attachment_79481" align="alignright" width="454"] Three students who have received NCCER certification at Petaluma High are Cody Kenney (back row,starting third from left), Jose Barrera and Aaron Perez, seen here among the school's participants in the SkillsUSA conference in San Diego in June. Also pictured are (back row, from left) Stone Brone, who placed fifth in sheet metal work in a national SkillsUSA event, Jay Katen, (front row) Bradley Worden and Miguel Arango. (image credit: Gene Karas)[/caption]

"They have some idea of what is going on in the industry," Ms. Cochrane said of those applicants in the past two years. She speaks in local schools regularly about what contractors are looking for in job candidates, especially a clean driving record.

Going on a third year, high schools in Petaluma as well as two others in Sonoma County are offering certifications through the Alachua, Fla.-based National Center for Construction Education and Research.

Started in 1996 by 125 top executives of construction companies and organizations to standardize training and credentialing, NCCER now has courses for more than 60 craft areas and offers 70-plus tests at in excess of 4,000 accredited locations nationwide. Employers can verify certifications of applicants via a private registry.

One such accredited instructor is Gene Karas in Petaluma High's Industrial Tech department. He led a four-year push to get the NCCER accreditation program accepted by the Sonoma County Office of Education and the school district.

"We're tyring to keep the standards pretty high, because an employer like Gail can be confident that when hiring someone with certification that person will have a certain level of skill," Mr. Karas said.

Out of his construction technology and pre-apprenticeship classes, which average 25 students, a fraction decide to go through the rigorous extra study and testing for the certification, he said. So far, 15 of of those students have passed tests to become certified in the past two years -- seven last year and eight this year. He's hoping to double that this school year.

Other than the two hired by RCX, Mr. Karas knows of one credentialed graduate who was hired by a Marin County municipal sanitation district.

"It would be nice if more wanted to go into construction," he said. "I think more will, with construction taking off and doing better than one to two years ago."

Also issuing NCCER certificates to local students have been El Molino High in the western Sonoma County community of Forestville and Elsie Allen High in Santa Rosa. Gearing up to offer certificates is Healdsburg High's Construction and Sustainability Academy.

A next step with the classes offering NCCER certification is to align them with the A to G entry criteria for the University of California system, allowing high schoolers to enter the trades or college, according to Patricia Biagi, career technical education cirriculum specialist. A course outline was submitted to allow passing the course to be considered as credit for an elective.

"The NCCER cirriculum is modeled after apprenticeship programs," she said. "High school students typically earn two to four certifications depending upon the number of years they enroll in the sequence of courses."

A state grant is being used to buy the certification course books, and the county is covering student certification fees.

The Solano County Office of Education offers a pre-apprenticeship NCCER certification via an adult pre-apprenticeship introduction to construction course at Armijo High in Fairfield, taught by accredited training center Corey Delta in Benicia.

As an extension to such construction education, Ms. Cochrane has been working as chairwoman of the Education Committee for the Engineering Contractors Association of Northern California on a new construction management class in local high schools that would be a bridge to more intensive programs at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University.

Garnering interest from the county education office and North Coast Builders Exchange, the course would give students in the construction programs a big-picture view of the industry by viewing all stages of real-world projects -- conception, design, entitlement, permitting and construction.

Seeking to tap funds from the county's Career Technical Education Fund, the trade group and North Coast Builders Exchange have been trying to come up with pledges for $10,000 a year for three years to launch the program in January.

The initial effort garnered just one $1,000-a-year pledge, but organizers plan to try again, according to Ms. Cochrane.