Finding work with good wages is challenging for many Mendota residents.
Located about 34 miles west of Fresno, the town’s work opportunities usually consist of farm labor. But the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission is expanding the options through its Valley Apprenticeship Connections program.
VAC, which started in Fresno in 2016, launched its first pilot program in Mendota as a way to help meet the demand for construction workers in the Central Valley while offering economic opportunities to disadvantaged communities.
This is good news in a community of about 12,000 people that is 96% Hispanic and has an average household median income of $31,237.
“We serve a diverse population,” said VAC program manager Amalia Martinez. “Our program is focused on those hardest to serve and those individuals that are not given an opportunity.”
A Second Opportunity
For Gilbert Guzman, the VAC program was a second chance to find worthy employment.
Initially, Guzman said he wasn’t interested in working in the construction industry. But, after graduating from Fresno State in 2019 with a degree in criminology, he struggled to find a job as a probation officer.
He said he was often told he didn’t meet the criteria for hiring because he lacked experience.
“In one place, they’re preaching about how there are so many spots available to hire for their county. But then once you go to the panel interview, it’s ‘oh, we only have a few spots available,’ ” said Guzman.
Since then, Guzman has gotten by with jobs like working at a post office during the holidays and at Lowe’s.
After searching for something better, Guzman heard about the VAC program from fliers in town. He recently finished the 12-week program that rewarded him with numerous certifications.
“Seeing these fliers about the VAC program, to me, it was just an opportunity to add more to myself, to my skills,” said Guzman. “Having certificates like that is always good to have just in case I have to move on to a different field.”
Next Steps After the Program
Looking to the future, Guzman doesn’t know if he will make construction a career because he still very much wants to be a probation officer.
For now, however, he has secured an apprenticeship with ABC Norcal, where he will learn painting techniques —a trade he has the most interest in.
“I will be learning different painting skills and just getting knowledge on how to sharpen my painting skills by mixing and painting and prepping, and using different equipment in the painting field,” said Guzman.
Throughout the program, Guzman learned the basics of where to search for jobs in the construction industry, along with construction skills like measuring, cutting, painting, replacing sheetrock, and installing cabinets.
“Here in Mendota, we were able to do lots of hands-on stuff,” said Guzman.
What Do Students Learn in the VAC Program?
Participants who finish the program earn certifications in first aid, CPR, confined space, work zone safety, traffic control, flagging, and hazardous waste. In addition, they receive OSHA 10 certification and certificates in blueprint reading and grade checking.
Martinez said that the program places a big emphasis on soft skills. Participants are told the importance of being punctual and following basic rules such as wearing proper fitting clothing and not using their cell phones when they should be working.
Called “thinking for a change,” the curriculum covers social skills, soft skills, and problem-solving conflict resolution.
This “is very important for the population we serve,” said Martinez.
Pilot Program Faces Several Challenges
Despite the EOC’s support, Martinez said the program had difficulty retaining students, as many first-time pilot programs do. Out of the 20 that applied, only eight started, and just three graduated.
“One of the things that we came to find out is that transportation is a big issue,” said Martinez. “So the reason why we chose to go to Mendota was, you have a lot of families and people that really want a career and … there’s not much training offered in the community.”
Further illustrating the transportation challenge: One of the program graduates, Martinez said, is having difficulty landing a job because he doesn’t own a car.
“However, are working to help him find a construction job in Mendota, in hopes of helping him to raise money for a vehicle and possibly grow into new job opportunities,” said Martinez.
In addition, individuals who could benefit from the program don’t take part because their families depend on them and they can’t afford to take three months off to learn a trade and get their certifications.
In addition, Martinez said, language barriers come into play.
“We had one individual that thought he could do it but we pretty much knew his English wasn’t very strong,” Martinez said of a participant who eventually dropped out.
VAC Embraces Second Chance Candidates
Some participants come in with bad attitudes. Others don’t show up on time, are repeatedly absent or fail the drug tests, Martinez said.
However, Martinez said that a person’s bad behavior will not hinder them from participating in the program again — even if they previously dropped out.
“We are a second-chance program and we don’t stop at second chances,” said Martinez. “If they didn’t learn the second time, we’ll bring them back again until, hopefully, they get it. So we try not to turn our backs on our students.”
Martinez hopes they can bring the program back to Mendota soon with additional resources that could help with language and transportation hurdles.
How to Enroll
The program runs for 12 weeks, Monday through Friday, with participants having to attend class sessions from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
At no cost to the participants, students will meet and greet introductions with trade unions, such as Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. in addition to gaining hands-on learning experiences.
Graduates then have the opportunity for positions in the construction trade industry after meeting the National Targeted Hiring Policy and Tier I or Tier II requirements for contractors working with High-Speed Rail.