Petaluma students building careers in construction

The North Bay Construction Corps program trains students in trade skills at a time of a shortage in the labor force.|

Tommy Carpenter’s grandfather showed him a news article last year about a construction internship that could give him hands-on training, but at the time, he didn’t think much of it.

A week later, that same article popped up again during a class at Casa Grande High School. That was a sign, he said, and he decided to sign up.

Since January, approximately 140 teens from Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino and Marin counties have dedicated one day per week and one Saturday per month for the North Bay Construction Corps, a growing program attempting to recruit young workers for a labor market that’s been stretched thin by consecutive years of extensive wildfire recovery projects.

Carpenter, 18, reflected on the experience during his lunch break on a recent workday in Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa, where NBCC trainees are building modular homes.

With years of anxiety behind him, he said he’s feeling more confident about his abilities, and now eying a career as a plumber.

“My mom always told me, ‘You get out of life what you put into it,’” Carpenter said. “I want to be able to retire when I’m older. I want to be able to do all these things, and I can’t do that sitting on my butt.”

Carpenter was one of 61 high school graduates that were handpicked for the North Bay Construction Corps’ boot camp, which provides two weeks of actual construction work at a job site. At the end, they’re awarded a $750 trades scholarship and get an interview with a local construction company that’s seeking entry-level workers.

The five-month program includes classes, lectures and workshops with trade industry members, and offers students the opportunity to earn certificates for CPR, first aid and operating different types of machinery like forklifts or excavators.

Of those selected for the job site training at two Sonoma County assignments this summer, eight are from Petaluma.

“This is real life. We’re mimicking here in boot camp what it’s like to work in construction,” said NBCC director Robin Bartholow. “That’s the whole point of it. We want them to be sure that they want to do this. That way, we’re not wasting their time, and we’re not wasting industry time.”

On a small parcel beside a solar farm on the Medtronic campus in northeast Santa Rosa, several of the Sonoma County boot campers have been working through triple-digit heat this month, building nine prefabricated homes.

The improvised village is the future site of Habitat for Humanity’s Sonoma Wildfire Cottages, a project that doubles as a test run for emerging construction technologies, and will soon provide fire survivors with temporary housing. Cottage residents will be eligible to stay for up to five years as a way to ease their transition into a more permanent home.

The project is at a critical stage as applicants are narrowed to finalists, and the one- and two-bedroom homes are nearing completion for an August move-in.

To get the job done, the local offshoot of the international nonprofit turned to the NBCC’s young laborers.

“This is so much bigger than training them to put four walls together or build a building,” said Angie Moeller, chief development officer for Habitat of Sonoma County. “These two weeks they’re going to have a hand in changing peoples’ lives forever.”

The NBCC is funded through a myriad of partnerships, including the North Coast Builders Exchange, the Career Technical Education Foundation, the Sonoma County Office of Education and Santa Rosa Junior College.

The CTE Foundation acquired a major grant from Tipping Point, the nonprofit that raised $23 million for wildfire relief through its “Band Together Bay Area” concert in 2017 at the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park (now Oracle Park). A portion of those funds were earmarked for workforce development, which is now flowing into the NBCC, said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange.

For 17-year-old Christhian Montiel, who just graduated from Casa Grande and plans to enroll at SRJC this fall, the boot camp has completely changed his perspective on manual labor.

“Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like actual work – it feels like you’re hanging out,” he said.

Intensifying wildfires have strained building resources throughout California, impacting vital trade industries that were already struggling to meet demands prior to the record-setting destruction in recent years. As the need for new construction increases, so has the need for labor.

According to an annual industry study commissioned by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, operating expenses for local builders will continue rising in 2019. The largest expenses are materials, which has seen volatile price fluctuations due the uncertainty surrounding U.S. trade policies, the report found.

However, the other variable has been the rocketing demand for workers. With fire-ravaged regions statewide, builders have been increasing wages in a historically competitive market for skilled hands.

So as college enrollments continue to decline, marked by a 1.7% drop from last year, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse, high-paying construction jobs have become an appealing alternative for young people entering the economy.

“It’s a different breed than what we saw 10 or 15 years ago,” Woods said. “It seemed like the image was if you fail at everything else and don’t know what to do, (you go into construction). Well not now. Parents know it’s their kid’s best chance to earn a living. The pendulum has swung.”

Newly-christened Petaluma High School alum Alex Ralske, 18, comes from a family full of tradespeople, and many of them expressed regret for not pursuing electrical work, which has been a coveted skill for commercial and residential builders.

Ralske has begun to chart a path toward that field, and is excited about the chance to land a job that could pay as much as double the minimum wage right out of high school.

“This is a good way to get my foot in the door,” he said.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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