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A just-unveiled program in Fresno is designed to bridge a long-standing gap between graduation and career for young adults, and turbo-charge the area’s economy.

Starting in January 2022, the program will expand further with a goal of funding up to 3,000 internships per year over the next three years.

Savanah Ruiz, who graduates in a few weeks from Duncan Poly, is an example of the potential that the Career Nexus program provides for students and businesses.

Ruiz has interned this spring at United Western Industries, which is near Highway 99 in central Fresno. What started out as a warehousing internship quickly morphed into an opportunity for hands-on experience in welding, the career she hopes to have.

While Career Nexus is in its pilot phase, the plan is to seek more employers for the fall internship group. Starting in January 2022, the program will expand further with a goal of funding up to 3,000 internships per year over the next three years.

The internship program is a community initiative of the Fresno Business Council and one of the 19 initiatives of Fresno DRIVE, a 10-year investment plan supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation to develop the area’s economy and make it more sustainable and equitable.

Kurt Madden

The goal, says Career Nexus CEO Kurt Madden, is to limit the amount of time young adults spend in low-paying jobs and move them into a career track sooner, and also create a better-trained workforce for local employers. Madden stepped into his new job after retiring earlier this year as Fresno Unified’s chief technology officer.

His Career Nexus partners include Deborah Nankivell, CEO of the Fresno Business Council, and Genelle Taylor Kumpe, the council’s chief operating officer and CEO of the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance.

The average age of community college students is 28, not just in Fresno but across the nation, Madden said. Although some young adults know early on what their career path will be, others will spend years working at fast-food restaurants or in other low-paying service jobs before they realize, “You know what, I want to be an electrician. You know what? I want to be a teacher. I want to be a nurse,” he said.

Closing the Gap

The aim of Career Nexus is to help those young adults get a handle on their careers sooner, Madden said: “It’ll impact the economy of Fresno if we could close this gap.”

The gap hurts local employers who have job opportunities but no suitable employees to hire, Kumpe said.

Genelle Taylor Kumpe

“One of the main focuses (of Career Nexus) is just trying to help industry build their pipeline of workforce,” she said. “Being able to have that hands-on experience in an employer site is just so invaluable.”

Career Nexus is designed to link employers, educators, training and support partners, and young adults, identifying opportunities such as internships and job shadowing.

The internship pilots began in late 2020 and focused initially on small- to mid-size manufacturers, healthcare organizations, and public agencies.

Within each of those fields are a wide variety of potential jobs, Kumpe said. For instance, jobs at manufacturing plants include human resources, marketing and social media, and accounting and finance, as well as technical jobs, she said.

Career Nexus helps prepare young adults for their internship with “soft skills” training (learning how to show up for work every day and on time, dressing appropriately for the work environment, etc.) and links them with local businesses that can provide solid job-introduction experiences — and possibly full-time jobs later.

Honing Her Skills

Savanah Ruiz

When Ruiz graduates as a member of the Class of 2021, she’ll be a certified welder and ready to start full-time work. Ruiz said she was already one of the better welders at school, but the experience she’s had at United Western Industries helped hone her skills.

“When I first came here and from the beginning of when I first went in there, my welds were very stringy and ugly-looking,” she said. “But now mine are more uniform and they look very, very good. And I’m honestly super proud. And it’s all thanks to United Western Industries.”

Ruiz said she started out in the heavy trucks pathway at Duncan but soon realized that she wasn’t interested in fixing truck engines. Welding wasn’t initially something she was comfortable with, but a fellow student helped her overcome her fear of the torch and its extreme heat.

After that, Ruiz said, she discovered that “I really like to create stuff, and welding gave me that chance and I took it. And ever since then I’ve had a passion for welding.”

“I’m honestly super proud. And it’s all thanks to United Western Industries.” — Savanah Ruiz, Duncan Poly senior

Ruiz’s day starts early: She’s at United Western Industries at 6 a.m. and then works for a few hours before leaving for her classes across town. She comes to work with protective gear: heavy long-sleeved jacket, long pants, protective shoes, pink-framed eyewear  (a gift from her sister), and the auto-darkening welding helmet she borrows from her Duncan instructor, Jordan Fickett. United Western Industries provided her a pair of gloves that are thicker and fit better — she’s diminutive in stature and has small hands — and with the better-fitting gloves, her welds have gotten even better, she says.

Ruiz name-dropped her instructor’s name at Fresno Oxygen & Welding Suppliers when she was buying her protective jacket. “And I was so happy about that because they were like, ‘oh, you know Jordan Fickett? OK, well, here’s a discount. And for also being a welding student.’ And I was like, OK, cool. And so I always go to them if I ever need any more PPE.”

Ready to Work

Bruce Ketch

Bruce Ketch, general manager of United Western Industries, said he was impressed with how prepared Savanah was for her job interview — better prepared than many adult candidates — as well as being prepared with the soft skills she needs for the work world. When he learned of her interest in welding, he made sure she had ample opportunity to practice, although because she’s not certified yet, she can’t work on the products that the company ships out.

He’s hoping to line up another three or four interns for this summer through Career Nexus.

Such a resource is “extremely overdue,” Ketch said.

“I’ve been bringing interns into our company for about the past seven years. And I understand this is a pilot program, but this is one of the best internship programs I have had experience with,”  he said. “It’s a win-win situation for everybody, for myself, for the community, for the students. And the whole calibration of the San Joaquin Manufacturing Alliance, Workforce Connection, Nexus, and Imago, with all of these people working together, they’ve created just a great pilot program and we’re really excited about it growing and being even better in the future.”

United Western Industries, which is about 50 years old and now employs 37 people, repairs parts for Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks, and also has agricultural industry customers, he said.

Ketch, who serves with Kumpe on the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance board, said Career Nexus will go a long way to helping employers find qualified workers who already live in the region.

“We see the need, and we discuss this all the time of what really needs to take place in the Valley to create our good workforce that is going to be needed for the future growth of manufacturing in the Valley. So they decided that it was very important to put this program together,” he said. “And so far — I know it’s a pilot program — but so far I have nothing but great things to say about it.”

Stefani Koda

Stefani Koda says Career Nexus is the “missing link” in the region’s workforce development, and she wishes it had been around when she was embarking on her own career. Koda is now a social worker with First Steps Recovery, a Clovis addiction treatment agency that has employed a Career Nexus intern this spring for an addiction awareness project targeting young people.

The intern, a Sunnyside High senior, learned that addiction is more than drugs or alcohol, but can also involve things like online gaming, something he was able to connect to, Koda said.

At First Steps Recovery, interns can be exposed to a variety of careers, including counselor, behavioral health technician, and detox specialist, she said.

“Career Nexus is unique since we work with the high school students with little to no experience, it’s so much fun for us because they’re curious, excited, enthusiastic, and we have the honor of helping students on their journey to a new career,” Koda said. “This is a perfect opportunity for students to come in and get first hands-on training into the career of their choice.”

Just the Beginning

Career Nexus has three-year start-up funding from the James Irvine Foundation and additional funding from the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board, which is underwriting the paid internships.

Potential interns must be referred by one of the program’s referral partners after completing an introductory career readiness program. If accepted, the interns are assessed and then matched with employers.

In addition to working with potential interns, Career Nexus also making sure potential employers understand what makes a successful internship and also how an intern might help the company tackle tasks to achieve goals that have been out of reach, Kumpe said.

“What can somebody that has just come out of school that might have some really fresh skills, what can they bring to the table to help you and assist you and grow your business or help you within your business?” she said. “So that’s kind of the onboarding that we do with the employers.”

Watch: How Career Nexus Pays off for Students and Businesses

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