Santa Rosa Junior College step up practical job training programs

Chances are good you’ve crossed paths with a graduate from Santa Rosa Junior College’s career and technical education programs as you go about your daily life.

Maybe it’s the dental hygienist during a visit to the local dentist. Maybe it’s the firefighter or police officer in your town, or the person servicing your car while it’s in the shop. The role its alumni play in the local economy is enormous, though largely hidden. It’s a crucial cog in the economic growth wheel.

“If we don’t have the workers the companies need, they will have to move or outsource the work,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Stone often talks about a “silver tsunami” coming to the county, as one-third of the current workforce will reach 65 years of age in the next decade, and how a high school degree simply won’t cut it in the 21st-century job market, as robotics and artificial intelligence play an increasingly significant role in industry and business.

“To be successful, you will have to have, at some point, post-secondary education,” Stone said.

That’s where SRJC comes in. The college cites statistics that state 65 percent of all jobs in the United States currently require a technical degree and 20 percent require a bachelor’s degree. Also, ?50 percent of coveted science, technology, engineering and math jobs do not require a four-year degree, but do require some post-secondary training.

The college has 9,500 full-time students in more than 160 career and technical education (CTE) programs, as they are called now. The modern iteration of vocational education is more likely to orient toward Microsoft than Stanley Black & Decker. It’s most known for its viticulture and enology programs, which are closely affiliated with the 365-acre Shone Farm in Forestville as part of their classroom environment. They have sent scores of graduates into the wine industry as well as the culinary arts, filling positions in hospitality, a main driver of the Sonoma County economy.

Christopher Silva, president and chief executive officer of St. Francis Winery in Santa Rosa, noted last month that “just about every winery” in the county has a SRJC grad.

There are other local career-college efforts as well. Empire College in Santa Rosa, a for-profit institution, has a law school as well as a popular nursing program, and Mendocino College in Ukiah has offered new certificate programs tailored to its more rural environment, such as sustainable small farms, landscape practices and nursery production. Sonoma State University also has a few programs, most notably a master’s degree in wine business administration and a human resources certificate program.

But SRJC plays an outsize role. Some 51 percent of its student body is in CTE programs and one-third of those are career changers - an attorney attending the culinary arts program, for instance, or an accountant studying for automotive certification.

The programs include other, smaller sectors, ranging from dietitian technicians to theater stagecraft to drug and alcohol counseling.

They can be short-term certificate courses, such as a 10-week course in phlebotomy, or two-year degree courses, such as its in-demand nursing program, where the waiting list can be up to four years long, said Jerry Miller, the college’s senior dean of career and technical education.

“We continually hear there’s a skills gap that exists and complaints that there are not enough qualified employees to meet job demand,” said SRJC President Frank Chong. “That’s our job.”

Just ask Craig Hammond, owner of Hammond Autowerks in Santa Rosa.

He started his shop, which services German-?made cars, in 2009 with his wife and has found recruitment of skilled technicians a constant challenge as the technology behind car engines becomes more advanced.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of automotive repair employees will increase 5 percent from 2014 to 2024, while diesel mechanic employment will grow by 12 percent.

“The righty-tighty, lefty-loosey (skills) is just as important … But you have to have the computer skills to complete the jobs,” Hammond said. “I’m from the era that you start by mopping floors and working your way up … The learning curve now is 90 degrees straight up.”

His service consultant, Marc Brady, received his certificate training at SRJC, and said it made a difference in getting hired. Many shops won’t consider candidates even for tasks such as oil changes without some sort of training.

“There is a need out there,” said Brady, who added that there needs to be a greater emphasis placed on auto classes in high schools to generate more interest. “I don’t think it’s as popular as it could be for those at a younger age.”

The college’s effort includes many other sectors. For example, land surveyors still find a big need for workers as the construction industry has rebounded from the recession, as many of its workers left the field during the downturn, said James Dickey, principal at Cinquini and Passarino Inc., a surveying firm in Santa Rosa.

The college is “very critical” to his firm because it relies on those who have gone through its surveying, geospatial or civil engineering technologies programs, which are based on skills such as math, engineering and cartography, he said.

“We have two (SRJC) interns now. When they get a little more base knowledge, we will probably try to make them full-time employees,” Dickey said.

Those employees could eventually become licensed land surveyors, where veterans in the field can make as much as $50 an hour, he said.

“It’s an easy way to get into a field to make a decent living, and that’s not easy to say in Sonoma County,” he said.

The programs can fluctuate over the years, depending on trends in the economy. For instance, SRJC previously had a massive training program for technicians at the local Hewlett Packard plant, requiring as many as eight full-time faculty members. But as the tech giant outsourced and downsized the local workforce, there was little need for a program with no students and it was discontinued, Miller said.

“I have to make sure it’s sustainable,” he said.

In fact, Miller said he could see paring down some CTE programs that are less popular to focus on those with greater demand, or start new ones. For example, a new one-year program will be established in the fall that will allow graduates to obtain a brewing certificate, a nod to the growing craft beer industry.

“The breweries have skyrocketed. Ten years ago there was only a handful,” Miller said.

Another new program under consideration is a heating, ventilation and air conditioning program - more commonly known under its acronym of HVAC - because there is not one in the North Bay, he added.

“They are coming from some place else. They aren’t coming from here,” he said.

Some companies or firms request programs be launched that are tailored to their needs. For example, the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit authority wants a certificate training program for signal technicians, a position that oversees the maintenance and repair of grade crossing warning devices. SMART lists the pay on its website as $32.82 to $43.76 per hour.

There are very few colleges that provide such training, Miller noted, so SRJC is working on launching a program that it could expand regionally. “Let’s market this to the rest of the Bay Area. San Jose has Cal Train and BART is always looking,” he said.

Indeed, the SMART relationship provides another opportunity - its trains operate with diesel engines and SRJC already has a diesel technology program. “It’s the same engines that run our buses. So our diesel program now has a new client,” he said.

Outreach to local business owners is key, Miller noted, and those owners serve on the advisory boards of various programs to provide feedback on what training is necessary to fit their needs.

He has been in discussion recently with Sonu Chandi, president and CEO of Chandi Restaurant Group, which owns a dozen local restaurants such as Mountain Mike’s Pizza, Stout Brothers Irish Pub and Restaurant and the County Bench, and employs 300 people.

Chandi wants to tap SRJC students who can gain management experience working in his various restaurants as they go through business or hospitality courses.

“The students who are looking to build their resume, we want to bring them into our restaurants,” he said. “Many times, they may not be able to get that experience.”

Miller and his programs serve as a kind of barometer of the state of Sonoma County’s economy and where it may be heading. Chong, for example, thinks it’s inevitable that cannabis programs will emerge - whether that will be at SRJC is another matter - as the drive toward marijuana legalization at the national level grows.

“How do you train a workforce for jobs we don’t even know exist?” Miller said. He joked that sometimes he feels like he’s being asked to predict the future.

“The answer is communication with our industry,” he said. “We have to be nimble enough to make that change.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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