Shortage of construction workers to rebuild Sonoma County focus of Building Trades Training Program

The air at Hanna Boys Center was filled by the mechanical screaming of saws and a steady drumming of hammers Tuesday evening as Maria Ordonez picked up freshly cut pieces of wood, her face framed by clear safety glasses.

The Sonoma resident is among 21 students attending a free 10-week program launched after October’s deadly fires to teach adults basic construction skills. Tears threatened to spill from the 57-year-old’s eyes as she spoke of the fires’ impact on the community she’s called home for 20 years.

“These classes are very important,” said Ordonez, whose home was not damaged. “We need so much help. We are learning and we have to encourage our community to be helpful. The county gave us the tools to work with so we have the knowledge to repair houses that burned.”

She sells cellphones at Boost Mobile, but hopes to work or volunteer in construction when she graduates from the Building Trades Training Pathway Program. The program is part of a partnership between Sonoma’s La Luz Center and the Sonoma County Adult Education Consortium, a multi-agency effort that includes Santa Rosa Junior College and the Sonoma County Office of Education.

She’s learning a lot, including a three-hour Tuesday lesson led by teacher and local general contractor Tom Schmiegel on construction math, use of saws, hammers and nails and creating wood frames.

The class, which ends with a Sept. 13 graduation and job fair, teaches skills like power tool use, roof framing, safety protocols for ladders and scaffolding, CPR and first aid. Taught in English with Spanish translation, it includes speakers from the industry and hands-on projects, like building two 80-square-foot wood sheds. Students receive industry certifications and a letter of recommendation upon successful completion.

La Luz Center wanted to partner with the consortium to launch classes in Sonoma Valley to fill an unmet need, said Sonoma County Office of Education’s Director of CTE Stephen Jackson. The program is intended to reach disadvantaged or displaced workers, and the center helps students with resumes and email accounts.

“The idea is that these students help rebuild Sonoma Valley,” said Technology and Employment Navigator Jerardo Martinez.

Classes at Hanna Boys Center began in April and 23 students graduated in June, Martinez said. Three similar, free classes were offered through the adult education program at Santa Rosa’s 180 Studios beginning in January, with another class scheduled for September, Jackson said. The next class at Hanna Boys Center runs Sept. 18 to Nov. 22, Martinez said.

Funding comes from a $200,000 state grant awarded to SCOE, Jackson said. La Luz has extra help from a Tipping Point grant that allows it to offer free childcare, a stipend and a tool belt for graduates, Martinez said.

About 100 adults completed the programs, and the goal is to graduate as many as 200 this year, Jackson said. About 90 percent of enrollees graduate, he said. About 30 to 40 percent of those graduates have been hired in the field, he said.

Porfirio Hernandez, who graduated from the Sonoma program in June, is volunteering to help the new class. The 55-year-old handyman, who also installs radiant heat flooring, said he’s excited by the prospect of a career in construction.

“I want to learn more and maybe get more out of it - that’s what it’s all about in the end,” he said. “I learned about safety … and how to work together and listen to people. I learned quite a bit.”

There was already a shortage of construction workers when October’s fires wiped out nearly 5,300 homes in Sonoma County. There have been two generations where few people entered the construction field, said Robin Bartholow, director of workforce development for the North Coast Builders Exchange.

Now, for every five construction workers that retire, only one enters the workforce, she said.

Adult education programs and the North Bay Construction Corps for teens are a “small part of the solution,” but a key one, she said.

“It’s going to take our whole community to rebuild after these fires, and these programs are really bringing our community members together from all areas to get ready to be hired by construction companies that are really hurting for workers,” she said.

Last year, economist Christopher Thornberg predicted the region would need some 6,300 construction workers each year until 2020 to rebuild homes lost in the fires.

But entering the field isn’t just a boon for the larger economy, said Nancy Miller, Santa Rosa Junior College’s director of regional adult programs.

“I think the benefit of this (program) is you may be working two to three part-time jobs to make ends meet when if you could work one full-time job in construction, it pays higher,” she said. “You have a higher quality of life and you get to spend more time with your family or save money for a house or a car.”

The college didn’t have such a program previously, she said. It’s exploring options for a facility to house construction programs, and a stakeholder meeting will be held next month to shape plans, she said.

There has long been demand for construction training, and it will continue to meet the need, Jackson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or

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