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Local News

Construction Corps gets backing to develop local workforce

People holding a giant mock-up a million-dollar check from the state to Mendocino Construction Corps.
Senator Mike McGuire holds a mock-up of a million-dollar check with Jared Dunham, a heavy equipment operator with Mendocino Forest Products, John Andersen, Director of Forest Policy at Mendocino Forest Products, Lisa Schaffner, CEO of North Coast Builders Exchange, and Nicole Glentzer, Superintendent of Mendocino County Office of Education.

Senator Mike McGuire was in Ukiah at Granite Construction yesterday to announce a fresh infusion of funds to revitalize a program that teaches construction skills to high school students. The Mendocino County Construction Corps went dormant during the pandemic, but McGuire expects a million dollars from the state, plus money the North Coast Builders Exchange plans to raise, will cover the cost of the program for another five years. In 2025, it will expand from inland Mendocino County to the coast.

“What we know is that these funds couldn’t come soon enough,” McGuire told a room packed with elected officials and members of the local and regional construction industry. “California is going to need an additional 400,000 construction trade, transportation and utility jobs through 2030. We also know that large employers here in Mendocino County and throughout the North Coast are in desperate need of skilled workers. And what we also know is, we need to grow our own.”

Participants in the Mendocino Construction Corps get a toolbelt with a basic set of hand tools. They learn a variety of skills in a special training program after school and on the weekends in the last semester of high school with experts in various aspects of the construction industry. Then they embark on a two-week “boot camp,” where they work on an actual jobsite and have an opportunity to present themselves to contractors. That worked for Jared Dunham, a Willits High School graduate who was a member of the first Construction Corps cohort in 2018. He got a paid internship with Mendocino Forest Products, where he now works as a heavy equipment operator. John Andersen, the Director of Forest Policy with Mendocino Forest Products, alluded to “the silver tsunami” of retiring workers, and the difficulty of finding employees to replace them. He said after hiring Dunham and working with other interns, he is “looking forward to a long relationship with the Construction Corps.”

Lisa Schaffner is the CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, an industry advocacy group. She lauded the Career Technical Education Foundation of Sonoma County, which teaches vocational skills in high schools there. She thinks every county should have programs to get young people into construction jobs. “Of every five people that retire right now from the construction industry, we only have one coming into the industry,” she said. “So I think that we can’t do enough…We’re going to do workforce development here, but we also want to set the stage, so people understand that to work in the trades, to be in construction, is something to be very, very proud of.”

Eric Crawford is the principal of the Ukiah Adult School and coordinator of the North Bay Construction Corps, which includes Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Marin, and Napa counties. It was founded by the Career Technical Education Foundation, North Coast Builders Exchange and the Sonoma County Office of Education. Crawford got the local program going shortly after the 2017 firestorm, when he was teaching at the Ukiah High School.

Before the million-dollar check from the state came in, he recalled, the program was funded by local fundraising, spearheaded by Megan Barber Allende of the Community Foundation.

The Mendocino County Construction Corps is based on the template of the Sonoma County Construction Corps. Crawford started meeting with regional players in early October of 2017, right before the Redwood Complex fire. Within three months, he said, “We had the program up and running. Really we just worked as if it was going to happen.” At a Ukiah Unified School Board meeting in February of 2018, he told the trustees, “Look. We’ve got this great idea. I’ve done all this work. We’re going to start classes on Monday, if you allow us. And they said, Yes. Make it happen. And here we are, four cohorts later, going into our fifth.” He estimates that 100 students have graduated from the program. Many of them have gone into the construction trades, and those who have gone on to college are studying architecture, engineering, and related fields.

The new money will make it possible to hire someone to set up all the boot camps, which are essential. Last year, for the first time, there were not enough worksites for the students to practice their new skills.

Crawford shared his pitch to convince contractors to invite a group of high school students onto their job sites: “We have five entry-level people who are very motivated, who would like to offer free labor for the contractors for two weeks at a live build site,” he began. Liability insurance is covered, and the students are paid by the program, so the contractors will not have labor costs to consider. “All we need is a spot where they can practice the skills to help build a house or do a renovation or whatever it is that needs to be done. And they might actually get an employee out of it…If they’re looking for somebody and they want to test drive them for two weeks, we’ve got people who will be trained and who will be available to do that.”

You can contact Eric Crawford at ecrawford@uusd.net.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.