High school seniors learn world of work through new Sonoma County internship program

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Motivated on a local level by a national trend, a Sonoma County nonprofit is gearing up to introduce a “gap year” pilot program this fall, aimed at inspiring high school seniors to explore work in the county through a one-year paid internship.

The Career Technical Education Foundation Sonoma County has launched the initiative, called Sonoma Corps, in partnership with several of the county’s organizations and education institutions. Participants include the Sonoma County General Services Department, E. & J. Gallo Winery, Keysight Technologies, Labcon, Straus Family Creamery, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University.

A senior year work-readiness component of the program launches in the fall. Internship begins in the summer of 2020, according to Amber Figueroa, foundation associate executive director/programs. She is overseeing the program.

The Sonoma Corps pilot program will consist of 20 high school seniors from one school in Santa Rosa.

“Our pilot site, Piner High School, was specifically chosen because of the high number of students directly impacted by the 2017 firestorm (68 students lost their homes), and the high number of low-income and underserved students,” said Kathy Goodacre, foundation executive director.

The participants will attend semi-weekly classes to develop work-readiness and technical skills, meet employers, and explore how personal interests can lead to lucrative careers with Sonoma County businesses, according to the foundation.

“This gap year exposes our local folks to different types of careers they maybe didn’t know about,” said Henri Komrij, vice president and general manager of technology order fulfillment, Keysight Technologies. “We have a need for technical resources in a variety of areas, not just operators in our production areas, but techs in our new product development, and lots of engineers.”

Part of the impetus for the program came from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation 2017 study, “Learning to Work and Working to Learn.”

According to the findings, “many high school graduates are unprepared to enter college — financially, emotionally and academically — and instead languish in transfer programs with little direction or motivation to persevere in their studies. The students also lack relevant skills for efficient transition to in-demand, skilled, high-wage jobs which would allow them to stay local.”

After successful completion of gap-year internships, participants will be awarded scholarships for tuition at a post-secondary institution, preferably into education pathway programs at Santa Rosa Junior College or Sonoma State University, according to the CTE foundation.

Another incentive for the program is to create a new pipeline for Sonoma County’s workforce.

According to Strategic Sonoma, a five-year economic development strategy for the county approved in July 2018, its population is aging faster than the national average: 33 percent of Sonoma County’s local workforce was over the age 55 in 2016. Additionally, Strategic Sonoma found the county is rapidly losing residents under the age of 25 because of the region’s high cost of living and perceived lack of opportunities to earn a living wage.

Jim Happ, president of Labcon and Sonoma Corps steering committee member, said the CTE foundation has the track record to create and fund programs to help infuse the county with the workforce it needs.

“This (gap year) initiative leverages (the foundation’s) experience with other successful programs like the North Bay Construction Corps and expands growth of a skilled workforce pipeline for the industries that drive our local economy,” Happ said.

Ethan Brown, program manager at the Sonoma County Economic Development Board and Sonoma Corps steering committee member, said that many in-demand jobs increasingly require skills and knowledge that go beyond entry-level skills.

“For at least a decade, we have seen local companies struggle increasingly to recruit and retain skilled employees,” Brown said. “The 2017 fires exacerbated this problem and it’s crucial that we develop a pipeline to train young people for careers that will keep them in the region and support the growth of our local economy.”

Bob McGee, president and chief operating officer at Straus Family Creamery, agrees with Brown’s assessment.

“I think the tight workforce is going to continue well into the future and I believe that business leaders need to get involved with helping develop that pipeline, helping to develop that education-to-career experience,” McGee said. “Otherwise we’ll still find ourselves in the same situation of not having enough workers for our businesses to grow and our communities to thrive.”

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