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Crucial to the Sonoma County economy, career education reworked for pandemic

Despite the pandemic, the work goes on to educate the next generation for everything from critical health care to high-tech manufacturing.|

High school and college trades classes typically take place with students’ sleeves rolled up in shop rooms and laboratories.

With a mixture of resourcefulness and perseverance, the career-focused education continues virtually throughout Sonoma County. The moxie is evident with Adam Jason, a Petaluma High School student who is taking advanced welding, sustainable construction and introduction to agricultural mechanics.

“I think it's definitely been more difficult. There's some material we can cover in the classes with book work and stuff like that,” Jason said. “But you can only do so much book work, especially as the classes are really designed to be hands-on.”

Students such as Jason are a critical link to the future of the local economy, since career education plays a key role in training workers for a wide range of in-demand jobs in the region. Notwithstanding the pandemic, the work goes on to educate the next generation for everything from critical health care to high-tech manufacturing and winery production positions.

How crucial? Consider that more than half of the students, or about 16,000 of them, at Santa Rosa Junior College are taking some career education courses, said Brad Davis, dean of workforce development. They range from a QuickBooks accounting class to students who obtain a two-year associate’s degree to transfer to four-year colleges.

The courses range from the college’s highly regarded viticulture and enology programs that use Shone Farms in Forestville for classwork, to its theater arts and hospitality programs. But it also has a wide variety of training courses in machine tool production and welding, and classes toward becoming a nurse’s aide.

“Our courses always fill and the need for welders in this area is huge,” said Davis, who noted the welding demand is driven in large part by the area’s wine and beer sector for maintenance of the tanks that hold their beverages.

Jason, 16, has not let the pandemic stop his high school career learning progress. He built a welding cart with his own equipment that he recently bought. Typically, he would have a teacher and classmates to help with design and construction, but Jason was able to do it by himself thanks to a basic welding class last year and an apprenticeship at Wine Country Ranch Equipment.

“It's definitely difficult not being able to do it through a class. I used the skills that I've learned through the class and that teachers have taught me,” the Petaluma student said. “I did the best work I could.”

For other coursework that requires labs, educators have been challenged.

“Career-ed courses really took the brunt of us going online because if you think about it, a lot of the career courses require a lab,” SRJC’s Davis said. “You just can't be online talking about theory. You have to get hands-on and get down and dirty.”

Some courses have been able to advance with less interruption such as the junior college’s Public Safety Training Center and geospatial engineering classes to measure distances outside.

The pandemic also has allowed the college to upgrade with minimal disruption with a new recording studio at its Petaluma campus, a new X-ray lab for its health sciences department and 18 dental chairs for its dental hygiene program.

“That's the silver lining, to be able to do that,” Davis said.

A main focus now is completion of the SRJC Construction Center at the Petaluma campus. The college received a $7 million federal disaster relief grant in 2020 for the complex to help train students in the building trades to join the workforce rebuilding fire-ravaged communities.

It will help train up to 500 students a year, though the demand is projected at 3,600 workers annually for jobs in construction and various trades in the North Bay, said Catherine Williams, the project lead on the new center slated to open in the fall of 2023.

The center is desperately needed, as confirmed by a North Coast Builders Exchange trade group survey last year. It revealed that 75% of its member companies need to hire one to five more workers to keep up with demand, said Robin Bartholow, director of the North Bay Construction Corps.

The construction corps is a five-month basic construction training program for seniors in their last semester of high school. Upon completion, graduates get help finding first jobs. Nineteen students were offered a job last year after completing the program that required pandemic-related adjustments, Bartholow said.

The corps recently had a few of its students make a socially distanced visit to Leduc & Dexter Plumbing in Santa Rosa to learn more about plumbing, while others in the program watched online to hear about all the different jobs at the company.

Leduc & Dexter has hired four employees from the construction corps program and has needs to fill additional positions as more Baby Boomers retire from the field, said Michelle Boom, a company contract administrator. The program provides them “a day in the life of a plumber” to give them the sense of what they would be actually doing on the job, she said.

“It’s great to bring in somebody who is young, who is energetic and who wants to learn,” Bloom said. “I just can’t take a guy and put him in the field. He needs training. We have hundreds if not thousands of parts you need to know.”

High school career education courses also have received a boost through the Career Technical Education Foundation, a local nonprofit, which as of last month has given more than $225,000 in grant funding this school year to support teacher salaries and teaching equipment.

“It could be for anything that they needed. There are a lot of teachers were putting together ... robotic kits. There may have been others who just needed a different type of software program and they needed all their students to have access or some other type of engaged learning,” said Kathy Goodacre, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer.

Cole Smith, a career and technical education teacher at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park, is appreciative of the support. Smith has been doing virtual teaching in a shed in the back of the house and has a 3D printer there for students to send their software designs for new products. The students have been making nameplates so far, which is a far cry from previous on-site projects like making tiny houses and a shipping container that serves as a hydroponic farm.

Smith said he senses renewed appreciation and a shift in mindset among area parents and students regarding technical education and various trades career paths. They are gaining much more respect and rebounding from the lack of resources and underappreciation in the 1990s.

“There’s a lot more respect being put on the trades, rightfully so,” he said.

If anything, the virtual work has made students more resilient during the pandemic, Smith said, which will help them later in the workplace.

“Adaptability is the most important career skill you can have,“ Smith said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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