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Mario Luna slipped off a pair of grimy gloves, relieved the workday was almost over after spending much of it wading through murky water to clear brush and other vegetation from a channel in Petaluma.

It’s a tough job, but one he hopes eventually will lead to a career with the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Luna, who for the past year has been with Conservation Corps North Bay, was among eight people selected for a new yearlong paid internship program aimed at exposing 18- to 24-year-olds to careers in the water management industry. The Career Pathways Program kicked off this summer, with the first six months spent clearing invasive blackberries and other non-native shrubs from creeks to improve flood protection, and planting native trees to provide fish and wildlife shade.

The Sonoma County Water Agency is paying nearly half the cost of the $489,000 program. Spokeswoman Ann DuBay said the second part of the program starts in December when the group begins its internships, for example, in fleet and water mechanics, plant operations and sanitation.

DuBay said eight more people will be selected that month for the internship program. Like the first group, they’ll start with stream maintenance projects before moving on to internships inside the water agency.

“We want to ignite their enthusiasm in working in this field,” said DuBay, whose agency partnered with Sonoma County Human Services, which used federal workforce innovation funds to cover more than half of the program’s cost.

Katie Greaves, human services’ employment and training division director, said the program teaches participants trades skills, as well as how to be reliable employees, making them more competitive for the well-paying field. A plant operator can make up to $50 an hour at the county water agency and a lead mechanic, overseeing repair and maintenance crews, can earn up to $55 an hour.

The internship pays participants $13 an hour.

“I’m trying to build a career for myself,” said Patrick Jones, a participant who wants go into creek maintenance. He’s getting an in-depth look at native and non-native species and learning how to protect the environment.

“I didn’t know too much or care as much as I do now about the environment,” said Jones, 21, of Rohnert Park, who now wants to go to college for environmental studies.

Under an agreement approved by both county supervisors and water agency board members, Conservation Corps North Bay, which for decades has provided job training and education services for at-risk youth, hires program participants.

“For many these young people, it would be out of their reach without this purposeful support,” Greaves said.

Susan Gorin, a county supervisor who also sits on the water agency board, called the program a win-win.

“As the silver tsunami hits, the county and many other local employers will face a shortage of trained, skilled tradespeople,” she said in a statement, referring to the aging of baby boomers. “The Career Pathways Program exposes young adults to desirable jobs that pay well, and gets them on a track that could help them meet the county’s future workforce needs.”

The program grew out of the summertime program, Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps. Older participants were looking for job opportunities, not just a summer gig.

“When you’re 22, you just don’t want to work eight weeks,” DuBay said.

While the program doesn’t guarantee a job with the county’s water agency, Luna said it’ll help him learn the trade and make connections.

“It’ll help me better my chance with them. They’ll see how hard I work,” said Luna, who wants to be water operator.

As a father of a 3-year-old boy, he’s motivated to land a job at the agency, where he worked as a teen as part of a Social Advocates for Youth summer creek restoration program.

“I’m just hoping to prosper, have a good paying job and get right on my feet,” Luna said. “I like what I do. I help out the community.”

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