Why a planned California North Coast construction training center is necessary to speed homebuilding
The North Bay's construction industry is about to be reinforced.
Santa Rosa Junior College and the Sonoma County Economic Development Board jointly announced last week a $7.12 million federal grant had been secured to build a training center dedicated to cultivating a new crop of construction professionals.
The North Bay Regional Construction and Building Trades Employment Training Center is projected to train hundreds of construction and trades workers annually in order to support ongoing countywide recovery and rebuild efforts after the October 2017 wildfires, according to the announcement. The 10,000-square-foot structure will built on SRJC's 40-acre Petaluma campus.
“It's just very exciting. What a shot in the arm,” said Mike Ghilotti, president and owner of San Rafael-based Ghilotti Bros. Inc. “It validates everybody that's been in the construction industry that knows the concern is where our workforce is going to come from and how we're going to tackle the next 10 years of buildout.”
The $7.12 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) disaster relief funds will be matched by a $1 million grant from the San Francisco-based Tipping Point Community Foundation. SRJC will contribute $780,000 in land for the center,scheduled for completion in two years.
For SRJC, the new training center presents the opportunity to offer a vast selection of new courses.
“SRJC has always had surveying, welding and auto mechanics,” said Doug Hamilton, president of Oak Grove Construction and 2019-2020 president of the North Coast Builders Exchange board of directors. “Now, with the new facility, it will be more trade-focused than they've ever been able to do before.”
The program will offer short-term training in a variety of specialties for certificates, as well as a program that will take one to four semesters to complete (see the box for details). An associate degree program for students in trade union apprenticeships is under development.
“I am thrilled that SRJC will be able to provide high-quality training for students who want to enter the building trades at this new facility,” college President Frank Chong said in the announcement.
After some of the deadliest wildfires in California's history destroyed over 5,300 Sonoma County homes in October 2017, a housing impact study by Beacon Economics identified the need to build 30,000 more housing units to account for local fire losses, overcrowding and employment growth, according to Sheba Person-Whitley, Sonoma County Economic Development Board executive director.
But there was a problem. There weren't enough available skilled construction workers in the labor pool, a result of the Great Recession, which for the construction industry started in mid-2006 and stretched into 2012.
“No building was occurring and so those people we had in the trades moved on or retired, and we weren't developing, attracting or retaining local youth because those jobs really weren't there,” Hamilton said. “Now we have this tremendous need for construction workers and you can't really import that service. You can import a manager or estimator for where they can afford to move, but not for an hourly construction job.”
SRJC's construction training center is the latest effort to rebuild the construction workforce. North Coast Builders Exchange, Career Technical Education Foundation of Sonoma County, Sonoma County Office of Education and the college launched North Bay Construction Corps in 2017. The corps is an after-school, five-month basic construction-training program for seniors in their last semester of high school. Classes are taught by local contractors and construction managers.
Hamilton, who founded the North Bay Construction Corps, said there won't be a direct connection between it and the new training facility, but the two entities will be working collaboratively.
“The new training center is the manifestation of the need for trade workers and the inadequacy of training programs other than union-apprenticeship programs and the collaboration with education to encourage interest in the field,” Hamilton said.
Collaboration will be key to how the center operates, and any rumblings about how it might impact other types of educational programs in the trades should be dismissed, he said.
“We're not trying to replicate the very effective union-training program, so if anyone tries to characterize this as having to do with organized labor, that's incorrect,” Hamilton said. “We're going to have a facility with everyone working together, which will result in less expensive homes and higher quality construction through a better-trained workforce and better-informed specification writers.”
Staff writer Jeff Quackenbush and The Press Democrat contributed to this story.