Looking up at the wall of photos overhead, Sal Vaca said, “We want our participants to be able to come in and see someone they know, someone who looks like them.”
“He’s doing a terrific job,” said Jeff Ritterman, the top vote-getter in last month’s race for three City Council seats.
Vaca directs Richmond’s municipal Employment and Training Department and the Richmond Workforce Investment Board, and supervises 15 employment and training programs.
The program Ritterman singled out for special praise during a recent visit was RichmondBUILDS, an 18-month-old 10-week program that provides basic construction skills and training in rooftop solar systems installation .
Graduates of the program meet the qualifications for union apprenticeship programs, paving the way to solid skills and good wages.
By early November, the program already had a waiting list of 70 for its January class, Vaca said, and the City of Berkeley had sent 11 residents for training during the year, paying $3,000 each. Classes are free for Richmond residents.
“All we require are eighth-grade reading and math skills and that participants either have a high school diploma or a GED or they are close to getting one,” he said.
The city itself has granted graduates credit for six months’ work experience, and Vaca said, “We want to build direct connections to the high school to make training available to juniors and seniors.
The program holds three training sessions a year, at a cost of about $175,000 each. Successful graduates receive a bonus on graduation, Vaca said, “a complete tool set worth about $500.”
The program is proving an effective source of jobs, with a placement rate for graduates of 90 percent, and an average starting wage of $18 an hour. “Our retention rate is about 85 percent at six months,” he said.
“With a $2 million investment, he could graduate about 200 Richmond people a year,” said Ritterman. He could also start a program with high school students who could learn home energy construction. “But we need a strong improvement to push for that ... We want to make RichmondBUILDS the premiere green jobs training anywhere. We want to nail it down. We need to develop a grassroots movement that’s unstoppable. It’s a program that offers green jobs, not jail.”
Green jobs, which make homes more energy efficient and provides solar power, may prove more resilient in times of economic hardship. This makes the program a good choice as a beneficiary of some of the revenues that the city will receive from the new business tax approved by Richmond voters last month when they passed Measure T.
“If you had $20 million to invest in the community, where would you put it?” said Ritterman. “We will probably need to create a community-wide process to talk about it.”
Even without an expansion of funds, Vaca said he plans to expand the solar construction program by another two weeks, for a total of five.
One outspoken supporter is labor activist Chuck Carpenter, who also serves as chairman of the Contra Costa Democratic Party and site coordinator for the Contra Costa College Career Advancement Academy.
“We are talking about direct entry for graduates into apprenticeships,” he said. “Major firms like Overaa Construction hire them,” he said.
“We’re going to paint the whole world green, but this is the first step,” said graduate Rickey Thigpen, who now works for Oakland-based GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit with the mission “to empower communities in need by providing renewable energy and energy efficiency services, equipment and training.”
That seven-year-old program seeks to bring solar and energy efficient technology to low-income home owners, and it offers its own training programs in renewable energy technologies.
“RichmondBUILDS has shown me a lot of things I didn’t know about,” said trainee Kapris Jones. “They’ve really helped me out, and now I’m going to be an assistant to the superintendent on a construction site.”
Ritterman is the program’s biggest fan and an outspoken admirer of Vaca’s.
“He’s a real asset to the community,” said the councilmember. “He’s the son of farmworkers, and he went on to graduate with high honors from San Jose State.” The program even drew accolades from music network MTV, which featured it in a September video available online at http://vote2008.thetakeaway.org/2008/09/19/california-richmond-fights-back-with-solar.
The program’s own page at the city website is at: http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/index.asp?NID=1243.