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Santa Rosa Junior College gets $7 million federal grant for program to train construction workers

Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus will be the home of a nearly $9 million regional construction trades training center intended to bolster the workforce needed for Sonoma County’s continued rebuilding in the wake of the 2017 wildfires, officials announced Monday.

Dr. John Fleming, the assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, announced the award of a $7.12 million federal disaster relief grant at a ceremony on the SRJC main campus attended by Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

Thompson called the grant a “win-win for our community,” saying the new SRJC job training program would offer degrees enabling people to earn a good income and “provide housing for a community that needs it.”

The North Bay wildfires of 2017 destroyed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County and a shortage of construction workers, combined with rising cost of materials, has hampered the rebuilding effort.

“Sonoma County has a way of bouncing back, and today I think is going to take a large step in moving forward,” SRJC President Frank Chong said in opening the ceremony.

Michelle Poggi, director of student outreach, said she was “so proud of the people who got this grant for us.”

Poggi, who lost her Coffey Park home to the Tubbs fire, said the college “is going to be an integral part of rebuilding our community and other communities.” Poggi moved into her rebuilt home in June.

The Commerce Department grant will be matched by a $1 million grant from the San Francisco-based Tipping Point Community Foundation and SRJC will contribute $780,000 in land for the North Bay Regional Construction and Building Trades Employment Training Center, scheduled for completion in two years.

Fleming said the local funding is required “to make sure you’re investing your money” and assuring that “we’re not wasting federal taxpayers’ money.”

The program, expected to produce up to 500 skilled jobseekers a year, will offer short-term training for certificates in residential and industrial construction methods, home repair and maintenance, construction project planning, fire prevention through landscaping and other areas.

Programs that take one to four semesters will provide training in solar panel technology; construction management; refrigeration; and heating, ventilation and air conditioning. It will be based at a 10,000-square-foot structure to be built on the 40-acre Petaluma campus, which has the room for such an addition.

Fleming said the skilled workforce “will be absolutely critical to advancing redevelopment efforts.” Across the nation, he said, there is “a growing dearth of skilled workers in the construction area.”

On a personal note, Fleming, a former Republican congressman from hurricane-battered Louisiana, said “we know the pain and suffering” that comes from natural disasters.

Work on landing the grant began two years ago when officials at the Sonoma County Economic Development Board pitched the idea to Nancy Miller, the college’s director of regional adult education programs.

The effort was rooted in a strategic plan that set a highly ambitious goal, adopted by the Board of Supervisors, of building 30,000 houses and apartments over five years, Miller said.

Chong said the workforce training would also pay dividends to SRJC, which has seen full-time student enrollment drop 5% from the fall of 2018 to fall of last year.

The college has also cut about $2 million from its budget over the past two years and reduced course offerings, he said, attributing the trend in part to the departure of about 4,000 county residents in the wake of the wildfires.

College enrollment drop-off is also a nationwide trend attributed to a strong economy that provides jobs to potential students, Chong said.

Fleming also announced a $300,000 grant to the town of Paradise to hire a disaster recovery manager. The Camp fire of 2018 destroyed about 95 percent of the Butte County community, claiming more than 14,000 homes.

“We’re just getting past our disaster responses,” Paradise Town Manager Lauren Gill said. “What we need are those workers ... who can help us rebuild,” she said, adding that she’d like to see a similar training program at Butte College in Oroville.

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