Students scanned the courtyard of Social Advocates for Youth’s Dream Center, trying to identify the different kinds of work that went into building the housing site for at-risk teens and young adults.
“Think out of the box,” Letitia Hanke urged the students gathered around her last Friday, jotting in their notebooks landscape design, masonry and gutters as examples.
Founder of the Santa Rosa nonprofit Lime Foundation, Hanke partnered with SAY to launch a 10-week vocational program this month to teach primarily homeless and underserved youth about the various building trades. The 13 students who applied will attend class weekly and hear directly from experts in the field.
The program is called NextGen Trades Academy, and focuses on giving youths who can’t or don’t want to attend college a chance to land good-paying jobs, said Hanke, owner of the Santa Rosa-based ARS Roofing, Gutters & Waterproofing. She said schools often don’t talk about construction work as a career path.
Many of those attending the program did not graduate high school or are familiar with one of SAY’s teen-oriented programs such as short-term shelter, food and counseling.
The NextGen Trades Academy program began in March at SAY’s Dream Center in southeast Santa Rosa. Funded through the Lime Foundation, developed to improve the quality of life for veterans, seniors, low-income families and youth, Hanke found contractors willing to pay the wages of the program participants.
Hanke, 41, started working for a roofing company while a music and performing arts student at Sonoma State University more than two decades ago. Beginning as a roofing business receptionist, she ultimately left college to work her way up in the company. In 2004, she launched her own company.
Currently, there’s a lack of young workers coming into the construction industry, Hanke said. That’s what gave her the idea for the program.
“We have this big generation gap,” she said. “We all say the same thing: We can’t find workers.”
Hanke’s foundation started providing similar training to 15 students at Rohnert Park’s Rancho Cotate High School in mid-January. About 15 students are enrolled in the three day-a-week after-school program that’s an introduction to roofing, solar installation, carpentry, plumbing, electrical and other trades.
In June, the contractors teaching in the NextGen Trades Academy will be joined by others in a career fair Hanke is organizing for students from both programs. All the students will receive apprenticeships but must apply for the work.
“These connections are extremely important for our youth who are looking to be hired into career pathways that will lead to living-wage jobs,” said Caitlin Childs, SAY’s communications and marketing manager.
“We often see kids coming to us with little hope of being able to be financially independent and continue living in Sonoma County. For the youth who are ready to take on a training program like this, the opportunity is incredible.”
Eliana Johnson, 24, of Santa Rosa, hopes to work for Hanke in the future. A mother of two who’s currently homeless, she enrolled in the NextGen Trades Academy program with the goal of one day becoming a general contractor.
“The goal is family stability,” Johnson said, noting her children, 5 and 2, don’t live with her. “I’m hoping to have a house and new car, get a tax return and have custody of my kids.”