As blue-collar workers across the nation lobby for the return of outsourced coal mining or steel manufacturing jobs, one cutting-edge Sonoma County nonprofit is training students to fill the jobs that are expected to drive the county’s economy for years to come.
Since 2013, more than 3,100 Sonoma County high school students have been trained to fill openings in industries that include construction, health and wellness, advanced technology, agriculture, food, wine and tourism. An impressive 92 percent have gone on to careers or post-secondary education in those fields.
Their programs were made possible by the Career Technical Education Foundation in partnership with local employers and the Sonoma County Office of Education. It came about in 2010, when the recession was going full steam. A high jobless rate existed among county high school graduates, yet local companies weren’t getting enough skilled applicants for the jobs they needed to fill.
To help solve this and related problems, Healdsburg resident Anthony “Tony” Crabb joined an economic task force that studied, debated and considered ways to help schools create the kind of skilled, 21st century workforce that would result in a healthy local economy and high-paying jobs.
One day during that time, Crabb visited Healdsburg High School to observe its year-old Construction and Sustainability Academy.
“The Academy is a kind of shop environment where kids are taught how to build things,” Crabb said. “They learn the construction trade along with other skills. My wife, Barbara (Grasseschi), and I were thinking of funding it through the Healdsburg Education Foundation, so we went there early one morning to check it out.”
They found a group of about 30 kids busily engaged in building a mini-house on a trailer. Outfitted in hard hats and tool belts, they had divided into small teams to work on plumbing, electricity and other building necessities.
“At one point they all gathered around a white board with the teacher,” Crabb recalled. “He began instructing them in how to design a roof, which included a good deal of math. He went through the geometry involved, and I noticed that the kids were paying close attention. I thought, ‘Wow, this is how you bring relevancy to education.’ That was my light bulb moment.
“I realized that we needed to bring the academic element into the shop environment. We had to make learning hands-on.”
Crabb’s light bulb moment led to the 2013 founding of CTE, which funds secondary school courses and programs that mix academic and technical/occupational knowledge. The foundation helps equip local students to enter new and emerging occupations as skilled workers. Since its founding, $1.34 million has been granted to local schools, $450,000 in 2016 alone.
One of many programs funded in part by CTE is the SWITCH Electric Vehicle Lab, in which students build an electric vehicle from the ground up. In the process, they learn about vehicle design and manufacture, but also about electricity, alternative fuels and clean energy generation.
Another program called the North Bay Construction Corps prepares students for careers in construction. After 30 hours or more of classes (including forklift certification, construction math, and basic electrical), a two-week bootcamp, job site and industry tours, and learning good interview skills, program graduates will have entry-level job interviews.