Wildfires push rebuilding of construction workforce in Mendocino, Lake counties

Students learn how to read terrain on maps during the first class of the Mendocino County Construction Corps program at Ukiah High School on Feb. 12, 2018. (UKIAH UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT)



Facing the prospect of rebuilding over 400 homes destroyed in Redwood and Potter valleys in Mendocino County during the October wildfires, local educators have joined forces with the construction industry to give young adults in Mendocino and Lake counties a realistic taste of that career path.

The newly launched Mendocino County Construction Corps follows the blueprints for the North Bay Construction Corps program now in its second year in Sonoma County. In four months, the Mendocino County edition has gone from idea to the first class at Ukiah High School.

“I’ve done a lot of workforce development, and to have an industry come to the table the way they have to this project is incredible,” said Clinton Maxwell, workforce development coordinator for the Mendocino County Office of Education.

The first cohort has 21 students from around Mendocino County and the Upper Lake Unified School District, the “realistic” range for students to travel to Ukiah from Lake County, Maxwell said. Ukiah Unified School District board voted Feb. 9 to take the lead on the new program, and the first of the four months of Monday night classes started Feb. 12. Students also attend one Saturday class a month.

Part of the work-based learning approach to vocational education these days, students in this new program are learning a broad range of construction skills: framing, electrical wiring, roofing, pouring concrete, plumbing, operating heavy equipment and staying safe at the jobsite. Leading the program is Eric Crawford, career technical education coordinator for the district.

“Often what teenagers need is a practical challenge put in front of them,” Maxwell said. “It connects classroom learning with the real world.”

Taught by local contractors, the program provides course credits through Mendocino College. Among the 20-plus built-environment companies involved in the program are Granite Construction, Crane of Ukiah and Selzer Realty.

Like the Sonoma County-based program, students who complete the 44 hours of classroom and hands-on training are set to put skills learned to the test during two-week boot camp. Those who make it through that will earn a $750 stipend and get a chance to interview with local employers for jobs that could start at $17–$20 an hour.

“It helps for a high-schooler to know that after school they have work options and postsecondary options,” Maxwell said. “It takes a lot to allow a young person have doors of opportunity and to help a young person walk through those doors.”

The program teaches “hard skills” needed to perform tasks successfully, but it also focuses on critical “soft skills” of showing up on time, resolving worksite conflicts and team problem-solving.

“Employers say it is easy to train people in hard skills, but if they are not able to be timely or cannot resolve conflicts, they may not be able to stay around long enough to be trained on the hard skills,” Maxwell said.

The problem of having enough construction workers long predated the October wildfires, but the loss of more than 5,000 North Bay homes in the blazes is expected to deepen the impact of the shortage. A number of California contractors folded after the 2006 housing bubble burst and 2008 economic recession. A slow pace of construction in the past three decades is linked to an affordability crisis in Bay Area housing.

“Any California county, rural or urban, is in desperate need of building trade workers,” Maxwell said.

The Mendocino County program is funded by donations from local individuals and businesses.

Funding may be a challenge for the Mendocino County boot camp this year. A goal is to have students building homes in Ukiah and Redwood valleys along with Rural Communities Housing Development Corporation and Hope City.

But RCHDC hasn’t been able to fully commit to the boot camp project because of the cost of and difficulties in securing insurance coverage for the students on what is deemed to be a commercial construction site, according to Brad McDonald, CEO. The organization has been talking with the corps backers about the insurance challenge, he said.

“One key sticking point is binding insurance coverage because of the age of the participants,” McDonald said in an email to the Business Journal. “Our policy will not cover persons under 18 years of age. The other is that a typical Hold Harmless Agreement does not remove a land owner, or contractor from liability for claims of injury or death.”

Getting such additional coverage would cost roughly $36,000, he said.

The North Coast Builders Exchange, a construction trade group that covers Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, launched the North Bay Construction Corps with help from the Sonoma County Office of Education, Career Technical Education Foundation and Santa Rosa Junior College.

For the second year, that program has split into two cohorts because of the number of students. One is based in Healdsburg, and the other in Rohnert Park.

Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Office of Education and the builders exchange started an adult education program focusing on basic construction skills. It has been based at the 180 Studios makerspace in south Santa Rosa.

The first 21 students graduated from the program at the end of January. As part of the project, they built a shed, which was donated to Andy Lopez Park and installed Feb. 15.

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.