Sonoma County builders launch high-schooler training

As educators continue to ramp up the emphasis on science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, the North Bay construction industry has rolled out a new program to give high-school seniors not planning on college a hands-on chance to discover whether a well-paying career in the trades is a better option.

The effort, called North Bay Construction Corps, is a partnership between North Coast Builders Exchange, CTE Foundation of Sonoma County and the Sonoma County Office of Education. It launched in January with distribution of applications and interviews of students, and the first class was held on Feb. 6 with 20 seniors from Cloverdale, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Courses are held Monday evenings for two hours, with a four-hour Saturday session once a month.

Busy schedules of school and after-school work and the realization that rigors of construction work and schedules wasn't for them whittled the number down to eight, according to Robin Bartholow, director of marketing, membership and workforce development for the builders exchange. Those eight students in the program will meet for the last time May 22.

They will graduate with California Division of Occupational Safety and Health certifications in forklift, scissor-lift, ladder and scaffolding safety; lead and asbestos awareness and personal protective equipment. They'll also be certified in first aid and CPR. Organizers said the goal is to have program graduates be ready for an employer to train in job skills, rather than starting with basics covered by the certification courses.

These eight graduates will be invited to attend a two-week boot camp this summer. They'll work 40 hours on a Habitat for Humanity construction project, repairing a senior citizen's decking and other aspects of the home.

They'll be paid a $750 stipend for the effort and get 1.5 credits through Santa Rosa Junior College, which helped coordinate the curriculum. That institution's involvement was a critical piece of the program, because a big impediment for extending hands-on training to high school students has been barrier of getting insurance for such a program outside of an Explorer or college-tied course, said Doug Hamilton, president of Oak Grove Construction.

“The need has always been there, and the desire from the industry has been there, but the Achilles' heel was how get it started” without the insurance, Hamilton said.

The goal is for this to be an ongoing program, he said. The plan for next year is to start with 30 students and aim for graduating 18.

“We already have employers asking when [the graduates this year] will be done, because they need the students now,” Hamilton said. One employer said he had 30 positions available. Each graduate is getting one or two offers each, he said.

As graduates show their teachers and parents that their job prospects have gone from $12-an-hour jobs to as much as $30, that might fuel more enrollment, Hamilton said.

Bill Hartman, construction teacher at Rancho Cotate High School, is the coordinator of the corps. Builders involved with funding or teaching include Hamilton, Jim Persons of Western Water Constructors, Rick Shone of Nordby Wine Caves, Arty Dexter of LeDuc & Dexter Plumbing, Rody Jonas of Pure Power Solutions and David Leff of Leff Construction. Major financial backers are BoDean Co. Inc., Team Ghilloti and the Syar Foundation.

Hamilton introduced the program at North Bay Business Journal's Construction Industry Conference in Santa Rosa on May 12.

Jeff Quackenbush (, 707-521-4256) covers construction, commercial real estate and wine.

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