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The North Bay Construction Corps program — which taps into the high school population to prepare interested students for construction jobs — has accelerated and expanded the program to get more of them working in the industry as the region retools for a major rebuilding effort after the fires.

More than 7,500 structures were lost in the October fires. Sonoma County will need 6,000 new construction workers each year for the next three years to rebuild, according to economist Christopher Thornberg, who spoke recently during an annual economic breakfast held at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa.

“As our community is faced with one of the largest disasters in its history, we are coming together to find ways to relieve the pains and rebuild the losses. But as a community that was already suffering from a housing and workforce shortage, these fires have exacerbated this problem to a critical level,” said Kathy Goodacre, the Career Technical Education Foundation executive director.

CTE partners with North Coast Builders Exchange and Sonoma County Office of Education to manage the North Bay Construction Corps educational program to create a pipeline for getting students into the construction field.

“For decades we had been asking, ‘How do we get kids into the industry’?” said Doug Hamilton, president and owner of Oak Grove Construction in Petaluma. “We were shy on trade workers before the fires. We’re five years late in the coming. I wish the caffeine had kicked in sooner.”

It was Hamilton’s inspiration for the program, in which he also serves as instructor.

Earlier this year, 17 high school seniors entered the program, and seven graduated. When the five-month program starts again in January, CTE expects 60 or more students.

“Our little 60 students are a drop in the bucket, but with the housing situation, it’s a good reason to grow our own that have family and resources here,” said Amber Figueroa, director of CTE programs.

One early applicant lives as far away as South San Francisco.

“I talked to the parents, and they understand the commitment it takes to get someone up here each week,” Figueroa said.

The graduates are highly hirable after completing the program. Every participant in the first year of the program received multiple job offers.

Program classes are taught by local construction industry representatives and give students a taste of what it’s like to work in a variety of trades. They learn trade-based technical skills like the fundamentals of tool-handling, safety, electrical, plumbing, carpentry and solar installation. They also learn soft skills such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving, leadership and working on deadlines.

Students also earn certifications in forklift and scissor-lift operation, Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 10-hour workplace safety course and CPR and first aid. This gives them a significant advantage over other applicants as they seek entry-level work or further training such as in an apprenticeship, Hamilton said.

Students also get hands-on experience in the field. The program pairs students with employers, culminating in a two-week boot camp that allows them to practice their skills. In the first program, they worked two 40-hour weeks while earning a $750 stipend, donated by construction partners. They also received a $100 gift certificate from a hardware store and letters of recommendation from the instructors.

But even more important than that, students are instilled with a strong work ethic, Hamilton said.

One student skipped out the first couple of days of the boot camp to go to the Bahamas, Hamilton said, and was let go from the program.

“We’re not going to hold their hand. But if they show us they are interested, we will reciprocate in ways they can’t imagine,” he said, by providing training and professional guidance.

Joshua Garrett, was a Rancho Cotate High School student and 2017 Construction Corps graduate.

“It’s very helpful in steering me in the direction I want to go,” he said.

Another student decided to further his education and is attending California Polytechnic State University, studying construction management.

“We’re getting positive feedback that these are valuable employees,” Hamilton said. “Construction companies say, ‘Oh my god. We haven’t seen this.’ They are busy sorting out job candidates that only say, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

While students graduate with broad experience, Hamilton emphasized this is not an apprentice program. They will still need to be trained according to the company’s trade.

“We are orienting them to the construction industry. Don’t put them on the roof by themselves or installing a 12-inch water main right away,” he said.

Hamilton also touts the program as a great alternative to going to college.

“We are sending a new message that if you are not headed to college, you can do very well for yourself and you can help your community,” he said. “Get an (operating engineer) job, make $90,000 a year and retire early.”

Goodacre agrees.

“Regardless of a young adults’ career aspirations, this program provides an opportunity for high school seniors to play a crucial role in rebuilding their own community, even if just for the first year or two,” said Goodacre. “They will graduate with incredible skills they can use to enhance their lives and future careers.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.