Local program helps boost Sonoma County manufacturers in quest for workers

Sonoma Corps provides training for work-readiness skills, offers one-on-one coaching and allows students access to full-year paid internships.|

Like many teenagers, Jocelyn Camacho was unsure of her future as she began her senior year at Piner High School in 2019.

Camacho’s parents immigrated from Mexico. Her mother cleans houses and her father is a construction worker. “I knew I didn't want to do that, but I just didn't know what I wanted to do,” said Camacho. “I was feeling a little lost on what to do.”

A conversation with a counselor led her to Sonoma Corps, a program that provides training for work-readiness skills, offers one-on-one coaching and gives students access to full-year paid internships.

That discussion led to Camacho’s participation in the program, where, after graduation, she had a one-year internship with Keysight Technologies and continued her studies at Santa Rosa Junior College, focusing on computer science.

Her interest has continued to grow, and she wants to attend Sacramento State University next year and major in engineering. Camacho credits the program for putting her on the current path.

“In high school, you're living in a bubble. When you're out of high school, you're not in that bubble anymore. So, you want to know what else is out there?” said Camacho. She is now interning at the Career Technical Educational (CTE) Foundation, which spearheaded creation of Sonoma Corps with local educators and business leaders.

Camacho’s heartwarming story is being repeated by others in the program. Sonoma Corps also is providing a lifeline to local manufacturers in Sonoma County as the effort is tailored specifically for them. Ten students went through the pilot program as of the summer 2021 and the initiative has ramped up to handle more applicants.

The manufacturing industry was chosen because it crosses many key categories, such as agriculture, food and beverage production, health care and tech. It is also one of the most difficult segments to recruit and retain employees in Sonoma County, said Amber Figueroa, a senior fellow for the CTE Foundation.

“This is definitely a pipeline opportunity for employers. This is an opportunity for them to promote the careers that they have at their organization and encourage the interns to consider them for long term careers,” Figueroa said.

The initiative follows an earlier one that was focused on construction jobs.

The manufacturing industry plays a key role in diversifying the Sonoma County economy beyond such stalwarts as hospitality, retail, agriculture and food production. Manufacturing companies employed 23,608 workers in 2021 with a gross regional product of $5.8 billion, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

A key benefit is that the jobs typically pay higher than those in other fields as the median advertised salary in Sonoma County was almost $47,000, according to the development board. Many jobs do not require the applicant to have a college degree, reducing the barrier to entry.

“From the perspective of being able to live and thrive here in Sonoma County, manufacturers are an excellent entry into that,” said Ethan Brown, interim executive director of the development board.

The list of employer participants in the program is extensive. They include such companies as Amy's Kitchen, E. & J. Gallo Winery, Traditional Medicinals, PCD Audio & Video System, Alluxa, Hog Island Oyster Co. and Hansel Auto Group.

The group also includes smaller employers, such as Max Machinery Inc. in Healdsburg, which makes meters that track the amount of liquid, gas or vapor moving through a pipe for automobiles, airplanes and hydraulic testing.

The company, which employs slightly more than 20 people, has had two interns in the program. The most recent one has been able to learn within its engineering department and is now working with its quality control team that conducts inspection of products, said Mara Palmer, human resources manager for Max Machinery.

“The idea is to allow all areas of interest to be explored within a manufacturing environment. It’s also just darn rewarding to be the first employer for this eager young adult, teaching him not just the needed technical skills, but nurturing his confidence, enabling him to trust his findings, properly voice his opinions,” Palmer wrote in an email.

For over a year, Max Machinery has been trying to hire a senior design engineer at the family-owned company where turnover is rare. The program helps the company get noticed by the next generation of workers.

“As far as getting the word out and getting the company known among young people who are just starting their careers, it's been amazing,” Palmer said.

Will Seppi, president and CEO of Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg, agreed with the success of the program, which is on track to have 50 high school graduates in full-time paid internships with local companies next summer. One student has been with Costeaux for three years, he said.

“She has been a rock star in our organization, learning not only about certain areas of our manufacturing processes, but food safety and compliance as well,” Seppi said.

He also noted the demand for workers beyond production. “We need people technically competent to operate the equipment and machinery, do procurement, marketing. It’s the whole gamut of business skills necessary to operate a business,” Seppi said.

Camacho said she appreciated the program was a low-stakes opportunity to discover if manufacturing suited her passion and personality before committing to major in engineering in college.

“I wanted to get my hands dirty and see what could actually come about this,” she said.

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.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor