Santa Rosa's NextGen Trades Academy connects students with careers
When he was 17, Marcus Hernandez didn’t know which direction he should take after graduating from high school, a familiar anxiety for kids of that age.
College was an option for the Rancho Cotate High School junior, but Marcus wasn’t thrilled about spending more time in the classroom.
“I realized that I really loved working with my hands, and that college wasn’t really a route for me,” he said. “I really wanted to get into construction, but I wasn’t sure how to get into the industry.”
One day in wood shop class, Marcus’ teacher handed him a flier for the NextGen Trades Academy, a new program designed to give young men and women the knowledge and skills to build careers in fields such as construction, roofing, plumbing and more.
Letitia Hanke, the founder and CEO of Santa Rosa-based Alternative Roofing Solutions, Inc., started the academy in 2017, to give young people an alternative to college. The academy itself if part of a larger nonprofit, the LIME foundation, also run by Hanke.
Having overcome childhood racism and sexism in the roofing industry, Hanke wanted to support youth who faced similar adversity.
After signing on for the first academy class, Marcus received training in the proper use of tools, job site safety and how to write a resume and prepare for a job interview.
He also met directly with local contractors, one of whom would eventually hire him out of high school.
Now 24, Marcus owns Empower Building Solutions, a general contracting business he started in 2023 with help from his family.
His mother, Crystal Bowen, owned a solar company bearing a similar business name. Prior to that, she was one of the few women working as a pipe fitter on the Golden Gate Bridge.
“It’s been really exciting,” Marcus said of carrying on the family’s working-class traditions. “One of the best times of my life.”
Years of supporting county youths
The trades academy is a program under the LIME Foundation, the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit Hanke founded in 2015 to bring vocational training to youth, help seniors live more active and healthier lives and connect at-risk youth to music, theater and dance.
Hanke has been the recipient of numerous awards, including The Press Democrat’s North Bay Spirit Award, the North Bay Journal’s Nonprofit Leadership Award and a California Small Business of the Year Award.
But her recognition doesn’t stop there, a photo of her with Gov. Gavin Newsom appears on the Lime Foundation’s website and Hanke has also been featured on the Kelly Clarkson Show as well.
Hanke openly shares the challenges that motivate her to support youth.
When she was five, her family moved from Berkeley to Hidden Valley Lake, where her father, Aaron Turner, had built a home on property he inherited from his dad. At the time, the Turners were among the few Black families residing in the gated community.
“It was supposed to be this beautiful thing,” Hanke recalled. “What they (her parents) didn’t know was how much hatred and racism existed there.”
When Hanke reached middle school, a music teacher encouraged her to learn an instrument, as much to spark an interest in music as to give Hanke an escape from the harassment.
Hanke discovered she had an aptitude for playing the trumpet and singing. After graduating high school and enrolling at Sonoma State University, she flirted with a career in the arts.
But when money got tight, she dropped out of college her senior year and started working as a receptionist for a roofing company.
Paying it forward with support
Working in the trades came naturally to Hanke, whose father was a union pipe fitter. Her mother, Gloria, worked in medical billing.
Hanke quickly worked her way up the ladder, and after four years, the roofing company’s owner asked her if she wanted to purchase the business. Feeling she needed more experience, Hanke did the actual work of repairing and replacing roofs.
Another four years went by.
After earning her roofing contractor’s license in 2004, Hanke finally felt ready to start her own company. But many lending institutions refused to loan her money.
“I was a Black female roofer coming out of nowhere,” she said.
Hanke finally secured the $250,000 business loan with help from the North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce.
But as ARS Roofing grew, Hanke still felt dismissed by some of her fellow contractors. She also detected racism in customers backing out of jobs once they met her in person, or in their refusal to shake her hand.
Hanke pushed past these slights. Her roofing company now employs 24, many of whom have been with her for years, notable for an industry with a high rate of turnover.