David Rivas, 28, leans over rows of rebar at a Habitat for Humanity construction site in Walnut Creek. It’s a hot May day and Rivas is part of a 17-member trade pre-apprenticeship cohort at Diablo Valley College.
The group is preparing for a critical foundation inspection, but Rivas isn’t worried: “I fix things. That’s what I do.” Indeed, Rivas has been working with his hands since he was five years old, “I used to take trips with my grandfather in the summer and we were constantly repairing things on my grandmother’s house.” Now a father of two, Rivas found himself working on a manufacturing line in Solano County, but he wasn’t satisfied. “I was working next to lifelong employees that were still receiving low wages. I knew I wanted something else.” That’s when he decided to pursue the trade pre-apprenticeship program at DVC — an element of the Career Advancement Academies that combine work, training, and professional exposure for hundreds of promising young people.
“The program attracts students who want realistic outcomes for their career path,” says Marilyn Ashlin, Program Coordinator and Employer Liaison. While receiving on-the-job training students also earn 23 academic units, and participate in contextualized math, English, and career counseling services. Kate Wothe, counseling faculty at DVC, says “Students are more engaged, because they know they’re learning what it is really like to get and keep a job.” Wothe works with students on sharpening their “soft skills” — teamwork, leadership and professionalism. “We have them participate in mock interviews where we videotape them for later review,” she says. “We also invite guests from unions, employers and other trade workers to speak to them.”
At the end of the program, Ashlin and Wothe will recommend six students for trade internships throughout the East Bay, and eleven of their students have already been offered interviews. “The students are hitting this at just the right time,” says Wothe. “As the economy strengthens, the need for people trained to work in the trades is really coming back.”
Ashlin and Wothe agree that perhaps the most important outcome for these students is a chance to learn about the range of choices they have in their career. “A career path is not necessarily about doing something for the rest of your life,” says Ashlin. “Students learn that a career is more about the possibilities you have.”
For Ruchelle Cervantes, a DVC student who will be graduating soon, graduation isn’t scary anymore. “I feel more prepared, like I have more direction,” she says. After graduation she’s interested in pursuing a career in Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning, a field she wasn’t even aware of until she started this program. When asked about being a female in a largely male industry, she laughs. “There are many advantages to being a female trade worker,” she says, “When you hit the job market employers want more females, and in our cohort, we are like a family, it doesn’t matter if you’re a female.”
Joe Valdez, an instructor, earned a degree in Construction Management at California Polytechnic State University before coming to DVC. Now he helps students find their own career path in the trades through the pre-apprenticeship program. After working in the trades for years, Valdez realized that a lifelong career in the trades can open many doors, and he discovered a passion for teaching. “We get students, who learn by doing. They come into classes with the understanding that anything done in the classroom will be applied on the job. It is quite a moment when you see your students build something, and see how proud they are,” says Valdez. This real-world exposure is what gives students the confidence to start on their career path.
The pre-apprenticeship program has helped DVC students like Francisco Courillo, who admits he wasn’t a motivated student in high school, but the ability to work with his hands toward a good-wage job has really sustained his interest. “I’ve already applied for the iron workers union,” he says. “And I’ve made friends in the program I didn’t expect.”
Story by Fanna Gamal