How Trade Schools Are Creating New Opportunity in Marin County

Trade Schools

It’s a scorching spring afternoon, and 19-year-old Miguel Cruz has clocked into his office for the day: the roof of a commercial building, 40 feet above the ground.

It’s hard work up there; Cruz and his colleagues from a company named Solarcraft are busy installing solar panels so their client can harness the power of the sun convert it into energy. The technicians are hot. They’re sweaty. Yet Cruz wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The trades have always made the most sense to me; they keep the world running,” said Cruz, who landed the job through a North Bay trade academy. “The reason it was important for me to learn a trade was because I knew if I learned and honed a skill in the trades, I would always be able to find work, and use my experience and knowledge as leverage.”

Cruz is representative of a broader trend: Across the county (and into Sonoma County), opportunities for career technical education (CTE) are abounding, and young people are turning to trade programs and programs in career technical education with increasing frequency.

Education experts say it’s hard to quantify exactly how many students are turning to CTE, but agree that numbers are on the rise. These growing numbers represent a stark turnaround; 2019 research published by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury said Marin County was underserving students seeking this kind of education.

Alina Varona, dean of career education and workforce development at the College of Marin, said that coming out of the economic downturn triggered by Covid-19 pandemic, a demand for more technical education shows growing demand to get back to work.

“The more education students acquire, the greater their chance for earning potential,” she said. “We are proud to be able to help these students achieve their goals.”

The Case for Trade Schools

Trade Schools

No discussion about CTE can begin without first establishing what it is and why it matters.

In a nutshell, CTE is a form of education that makes academic content accessible to students by providing it in a hands-on context.

The mode integrates academic, technical, and occupational knowledge to provide students with pathways to high-demand, livable-wage careers. One of the key features of this type of learning is the connection with industry and postsecondary opportunities, including early college credit (in some cases).

Students may choose CTE for a variety of different reasons.

One echoes the same rationale Cruz shared about his job installing solar panels; learning a marketable skill makes it easier to find work. Another big reason: Finding an alternative to two- or four-year college. While about one-third of Marin County teenagers look to continue their studies after high school by going on to some form of college, many others feel higher education is not for them and actively choose to avoid the debt of higher education that people spend years defraying.

Finally, of course, is the opportunity to get paid well for work immediately out of high school. According to 2022 data from Centers of Excellence, the minimum hourly wage for a single adult to afford basic needs in Marin County is $31.88 — a wage that most trade jobs cover handily.

“Trade jobs are in most cases really good jobs,” said Varona. “Just because there has been a prescribed path for students after high school doesn’t necessarily mean that path is for everyone.”

Expanding Public Programs

Trade Schools Fire Foundry

Two of the largest and most varied opportunities for career technical education in Marin County come from two of the biggest players in the region: the College of Marin, and the Marin County Office of Education (MCOE).

The College of Marin’s program comprises several different standout initiatives.

One, dubbed Education to Career (or E2C), works with local construction companies to give students real-world experience, and expand their education in the trades.

As part of this program, several dozen students from the Canal area of San Rafael have completed eight-week building construction courses. The program, which began in 2018, is a partnership with Canal Alliance, a San Rafael nonprofit that provides local immigrants with resources and support. The goal was to brainstorm ways to create a meaningful college-to-work program that would support the Canal community by providing training for sustainable careers.

Once the decision was made to focus on construction, which typically offers jobs starting over $25 an hour, the team recruited the Marin Builders Association to join the partnership. Since then, their role has been to match E2C students with construction jobs. And they’ve done so, with increasing success.

The program has worked so well that Varona said the College intends to expand it to other industries and disciplines.

At the same time, the College of Marin has leveraged funding from the state to launch technical training programs in 15 other disciplines, including welding, machine technology, and court reporting. There’s even a special program for women and BIPOC students interested in firefighting careers — dubbed Fire Foundry, it brings together resources and expertise from several different organizations, including the Marin County Fire Department, Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority and Conservation Corps North Bay (to name a few).

Elsewhere in the county, MCOE partners with Marin high school districts and more than 200 businesses to provide CTE courses and career exploration programs for students, including an internship program through the Marin County School to Career Partnership.

MCOE Senior Deputy Superintendent Ken Lippi said CTE provides students with great options.

“What makes Career Technical Education special is that it offers students an opportunity to ‘learn by doing’ in a teaching and learning environment with real-world applications and experiences,” Lippi wrote in a recent email. “Academic subjects become more interesting as they are applied to relevant projects and problem solving.”

Embracing Equity

Trade Schools

Many independent trade programs focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Cruz, the solar installer, got his current gig through the NextGen Trades Academy, a special program offered through the Santa Rosa-based LIME Foundation. 

Letitia Hanke, LIME founder and president of ARS Roofing, a roofing contractor in Santa Rosa, said NextGen prepares students who may not otherwise want to go to college for well-paying work in the construction trades.

NextGen serves young people in Sonoma and Marin counties. Throughout the program, each student explores approximately 14 construction trades such as architecture, plumbing, roofing, electrical, green building, solar technology, as well as life skills such as cover letter writing, resume writing, personal finance, budgeting, and job interview coaching. The program integrates technology, classroom instruction, hands-on experience, construction trade research and CalOSHA certifications.

“We not only train them, but help graduates of the program find paid apprenticeships, which at the same time helps enlarge the workforce available to local contractors,” Hanke said. “Sometimes young people don’t even know what their options are as far as trades are concerned. That’s why it’s so important to have a program that helps them learn their way.”

Hanke said equity is a key goal of the program, noting that it serves people who identify as BIPOC.

“I’m a Black female roofer,” she quipped. “It’s important for young people to see others in the industry who look like them.”

Other Approaches

Trade Schools

Still other technical education programs serving Marin County take different approaches.

Big Skills Tiny Homes, a nonprofit based in San Anselmo, recruits a group of five or six students every year to log 900 hours of training and build a tiny home from scratch. The thinking behind this curriculum is simple: Because a tiny house touches so many different trade disciplines, students learn a variety of skills along the way.

Currently, the group meets in Fairfax. Director Sean Ticknor said they start with a trailer and a pile of lumber. From there, as they frame the house itself, they learn carpentry, waterproofing, window installation, siding and roofing. Once the shell of the tiny house is complete, they move on to building out the inside, focusing on plumbing, electrical insulation, drywall, and trim work. The “home stretch” of the project includes cabinetry, custom furniture and painting.

“The process is super intensive, and it takes a whole lot of time, but our students learn a little bit of everything,” Ticknor said. “The hope is that after this exposure, they’ll want to learn more.”

To date, Big Skills Tiny Homes has built six homes. Some of the tiny houses have been donated to wildfire victims; others have been given to people aging out of foster care. One home was donated to the Community Land Trust of West Marin. Another was sold at a discount to help raise funds for the program; the rest of the budget comes from individual donors and grants.

A different nonprofit, an organization named Shifting Gears, teaches technical education in the automotive trades to roughly 80 students from 13 high schools across the county.

Working in conjunction with the Marin County Office of Education, this group is currently offering two classes: Auto Tech and Car Appreciation and Preservation. According to founder Charlie Goodman, the classes provide invaluable skills related to vehicle maintenance and repair.

As Goodman explains it, one semester focuses on engines, and students take apart small-block Chevy V8 engines and reassemble them. Another semester highlights carburetors and fuel delivery; students follow the same disassemble/reassemble format there. A third semester spotlights brakes, while a fourth semester teaches all about transmissions and rear ends.

“This whole program stemmed from the observation that there weren’t young people doing these sorts of things,” Goodman said. “It’s really great to see so many of them interested in trades now.”

What’s Next

Trade Schools

When considering the future of CTE in Marin County, one word comes to mind: more.

The College of Marin continues to expand its offerings, launching a new apprenticeship program in partnership with Golden Gate Transit this summer that will train 175 new bus operators over three years.

The Marin County Office of Education also has big plans for the years ahead, launching a new program called the Marin CTE Center. The Center is the brainchild of Goodman, who has raised $1.3 million for it and is working in conjunction with the county and other organizations to make it come to life.

The Center will reside in an outdoor classroom at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, and will be open to students countywide. It will incorporate the current automotive classes, and offer additional classes in the afternoons, evenings, and weekends. The CTE Center also will provide transportation options for students from across Marin County.

The Marin CTE Center also will increase the number of students who can participate in and benefit from CTE pathways, especially low-income, female, Latinx, and rural students, who are underrepresented in technical education. According to a 2019 report by the National Association of State Boards of Education, completing CTE pathways in priority sectors can help disproportionately impacted students obtain livable-wage employment.

Eventually, the Center will offer pathways to industry sectors with significant projected growth, and will provide careers that meet or exceed the livable wage for Marin County. Right now, the first three planned pathways are Residential & Commercial Construction, Education, and Patient Care.

“The Center will greatly expand potentially life-changing opportunities for students from throughout Marin,” said Lippi, the deputy superintendent.

Smaller programs are growing, too.

Big Skills Tiny Homes is moving to a permanent home at San Rafael High School this fall, and it will expand from one program to two: one for older students that comprises 900 hours of training, and another for high school students that comprises 140 hours. According to Ticknor, the high-school program will be an elective during which students will learn a sampling of certain trades.

“Right now, there are truly gifted builders being missed by our school system,” he said. “Hopefully this will help find them and get them excited about construction [or subcontracting] as a career.”