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Piner High School student Natalie Avila job-shadowed for a year at a Healdsburg restaurant, so she was intrigued to ask about career opportunities at a Healdsburg bakery that was among the employers looking to inspire for later hire via a regional job fair in Santa Rosa on Thursday.

Avila and fellow Piner culinary arts program students Mariana Barajas and Giselle Soto talked with Costeaux French Bakery owner Will Seppi about the breadmaking process and ways to start in that business. Avila had worked last school year in the kitchen with Spoonbar chef Casey Van Voorhis as part of the Piner’s culinary program.

“I learned from her how to make fresh pasta and organic eggs,” Avila said.

Costeaux was one of 18 local companies participating in the second annual Food & Beverage Manufacturing Careers Summit, held in the Bertolini Student Center at Santa Rosa Junior College. The summit was put on by the Career Technical Education (CTE) Foundation, in partnership with the Sonoma County Office of Education, North Bay Food Industry Group, the college and Sonoma State University.

Registered to attend the morning session were 147 students from 16 Sonoma County high schools. Close to 100 students from SRJC and SSU attended the fair in the afternoon.

Kicking off the event was Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who also runs Foggy River Farm, a community-supported agriculture business near Healdsburg.

“One of the best things you can do when you are trying to find out what kind of job (you) want is to talk to people who actually have those jobs,” she told the high school students before the job fair. “And it also gives you a leg up: making that personal connection, shaking someone’s hand, having a conversation with them. That is the kind of thing they will remember when they are sorting through a huge stack of resumes to see who they want to hire as a summer intern or who they want to hire for that entry-level position.”

The good news, Hopkins said to them, is they are approaching the job market at a time of worker shortages. Sonoma and Marin counties had the fifth- and second-lowest joblessness rates in California in January, respectively, per the latest state figures. The rate was 3.1 percent in Sonoma and 2.5 percent in Marin.

“It really is an exciting time for food and beverage manufacturing,” Hopkins said. “… It’s a growth industry. We’re seeing an increasing desire across the country: they want to know the story behind their food. They just don’t want a generic product anymore.”

A panel of local employers fielded questions students texted in about their businesses and how to start in such careers. Afterward, there was a job fair, where students could practice interview skills taught by their teachers and counselors to learn what careers are possible and what’s needed to get into them.

“What entry-level jobs are available?” Diogo Carrillo asked Sylvia Proctor, who was staffing Clover Sonoma’s job fair table.

Proctor told the Geyserville High School sophomore and fellow students Nancy Gonzalez and Veronica Diaz Jimenez, both seniors, that some Clover jobs such as in HR call for college degrees, but high schoolers could start out in some office roles. And after high school, there are jobs in production and distribution.

“But to be a class A driver, you have to be 21,” Proctor told the students. She is vice president for human resources at the Petaluma-based dairy processor.

Drivers are a critical looming need for Clover, Proctor told North Bay Business Journal. The company just filled open positions and now employs 54 drivers. They haul cartons of milk, boxes of butter, cups of yoghurt and tubs of other dairy products to stores in a 100-mile radius of the Petaluma plant. The company uses third-party haulers to distribute beyond that, so the drivers can be home each night, Proctor said.

“The biggest problem is retirement,” she said. About one-third of Clover’s drivers are set to retire in the next three to five years. The average driver tenure with the company is 18 years.

“Drivers are the face of Clover” at the stores they visit regularly, Proctor said.

But Clover has a system in place for raising its own drivers, she said. Candidates start out in the warehouse, because production workers are too critical to lose. Then on company time, the fleet safety supervisor schools prospective drivers on what they need to get a learner’s permit for trucks. After that, there is on-the-road training and, finally, a state test for the class A truck license.

Depending on the person, it can be a three- to six-month process, Proctor said.

Lennyn Morales, a senior from Rancho-Cotate High School in Rohnert Park asked Alvarado Street Bakery personnel specialist Gregg Sisneros how the Petaluma-based company makes bread.

“You may have made bread at home, but we do up to 40,000 loaves a day,” Sisneros told him.

Morales plans to attend the University of California, Davis, in the fall to study chemical engineering. He planned to take the tour Thursday of SRJC’s welding program. He immigrated from Mexico three years ago and had done some arc-welding earlier in his life there. But he learned the value of welding goggles after trying to use the welder without them one time, and he attributes that experience to slight loss of vision.

The agricultural side of Cowgirl Creamery drew Trevor Decker, a senior at Analy High School in Sebastopol, to talk to Rachel Cohen. She is the people operations manager for the Petaluma-based company and its sister distributor Tomales Bay Foods. Decker is part of Analy’s agriculture program and is on his second year of raising competition pigs as part of the Future Farmers of America club.

“I’m a city boy who changed schools and fell in love with agriculture,” Decker said. None of his family has a background in that industry. This summer he wants to get a job somewhere in agriculture, before starting the viticulture and sustainable agriculture certificate programs at SRJC.

“If I get a four-year degree, it will be later in life,” he said.

With its new Petaluma processing plant opened last year, Cowgirl is actively hiring for assistant cheesemakers there, Cohen said. And the 100-employee company is looking for seasonal, part-time or full-time staff for its retail shop in Point Reyes Station on the Marin County coast.

Like other employers, Cowgirl is struggling to compete for workers at a time of ultralow unemployment, Cohen said.

Sonoma and Marin counties had the fifth- and second-lowest joblessness rates in California in January, respectively, per the latest state figures. The rate was 3.1 percent in Sonoma and 2.5 percent in Marin.

“We really need to retain the talent we do have and emphasize that this is a great place to work,” Cohen said. So this year, the company is focusing on training and career-development to help hold onto workers. That includes teaching the workforce about the dairy farms that supply the cheese.

“We hope that for those who come in and do not know much about cheese or dairy, we can teach them as much as we can,” Cohen said. “We’re here to promote sustainable agriculture.”

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

This story was updated with comments from Lynda Hopkins.