Teen construction trades programs in Northern California see spike in participants

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Three years ago, just seven high school students graduated from a North Bay program teaching them construction skills.

This year, the graduating class for the North Bay Construction Corps was 98 students from five North Bay counties. The program consists of a five-month training program plus a two-week boot camp.

In Sonoma County, the corps started with 80 students of which 38 graduated from the camp. The graduation was held June 21 at the new Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County’s industrialized home manufacturing center at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park.

The training program aims to introduce high school seniors to careers in construction and the trades while earning college credit. During the boot camp, students received real-world experience practicing their skills in building homes and becoming engaged with related projects while earning a trades scholarship.

At the June boot camp, students in the corps program partnered with Habitat for Humanity on three projects: two, 1,200-square-foot Graton homes; nine of 10 planned cottages at Medtronic’s Fountaingrove site for wildfire survivors; and saw tables and platforms for manufacturing wall panels and related projects at the Habitat Center.

“There is a definite gap for many students between high school and the ability to be adequately prepared for jobs in fields like construction,” said Robin Bartholow, corps director.

“Experiencing the day-to-day realities of work, using your hands, operating tools and other equipment in a safe and proper manner, is better learned at work sites under the close supervision of skilled supervisors and mentors. Students need to build confidence and skills on the job combined with formal classroom training. Today they also need these experiences so they can make informed decisions about their future path in life.”

In addition to the certificate of completion, graduates received another certificate from Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, congratulating them for their achievement. They also received trade scholarships for $750 to be used for tools, work boots, tool belts, union dues, etc.

Before the graduation ceremony, students met with 25 employers: plumbers, electricians, large construction company representatives, residential contractors, as well as site-preparation firms doing paving and grading. Construction placement agencies, such as Tradesmen International, were also present to meet them in speed-interviewing sessions.

“Some students received invitations to come in first thing Monday morning to fill out applications, while others got firm offers on the spot. One student thought he was going to (Santa Rosa Junior College) in the fall, but decided he would probably work in construction for a while instead. Now he is thinking about changing his career trajectory,” Bartholow said.

She said in the old days, graduating students wishing to get into construction would often just show up at a job site and ask for work — not any more. Skills and experience are what counts today, plus a strong work ethic, determination, a willingness to learn, grow and be productive plus the ability to stand up to a challenging eight-hour work day outdoors.

The program had its origin at the North Coast Builders Exchange about four years ago, when leaders became concerned over the lack of local construction workers.

“Local high school shop workers were asked to submit the names of three to five students they thought would be interested in construction. Several of those who came in quit after two or three days because they didn’t know what they were in for, and lacked the necessary preparation,” Bartholow said.

Doug Hamilton, with Oak Grove Construction and chair of the North Coast Builders Exchange Workforce Development Committee at the time, suggested that the exchange start a career exploration and training program based on the Fire Explorer model. Other founding partners were the Career Technical Education Foundation, the Sonoma County Office of Education and Santa Rosa Junior College.

“Technology, and its applications for industries such as construction, are among the most appealing aspects for youth today,” Bartholow said. “Our program is definitely a game changer. This August, we will sit down and plan our strategy for NBCC moving forward in 2020. One of our big fears is getting too big to do this well. Funding from Tipping Point will enable us to further expand by adding other chapters in Sonoma County, Napa County (Calistoga) and Mendocino County.

She said another pilot program, in cooperation with the Marin Builders Association and that county’s office of education, is based on the corps’ model. It has funding from the Mario Ghilotti Foundation. About 16 Marin students graduated in June.

In all, over 75 industry partners provide funding, teachers, resources and facilities to help support the North Bay Construction Corps, and there is interest from other counties thinking about establishing similar programs.

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