Construction classes at Cosumnes River College are a hum of activity, as a rainbow of students, ranging in age from 18 to 65 collaborate to cut drywall, solder piping, and lay the finishing touches on tiny homes they’ve constructed. Many of these students are recipients of a $500 Promise to Career: Construction scholarship established by Kaiser Permanente in the fall of 2021 at the Los Rios Community College District (Los Rios) in Sacramento, California.
“This class brought a lot of joy, excitement, and it gave me a second chance,” said Bryce Walker, a construction technology student. “I found construction to be better for me personally. I want to build homes for the homeless and give others a second chance as well.”
Kaiser Permanente’s construction projects were running behind schedule in 2018, so the health care organization approached the heads of construction companies to address the issue and learned that they were contending with a shortage of skilled workers. As the extent of this labor shortage came into focus, Kaiser Permanente became concerned that this could hobble construction projects in the long-term, leading to further complications in its service of healthy communities.
Kaiser Permanente approached the California Chamber of Commerce and Capitol Impact, a Sacramento-based social impact consulting firm, for support in untangling this sticky problem. The team landed on Talent Pipeline Management®, a workforce curriculum developed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, as a strategy to better understand workforce skills gaps for current and future Kaiser Permanente construction projects.
Together, the three organizations convened an employer collaborative of construction companies in 2019 to embark on an investigation of the construction industry landscape in the Sacramento area. The findings were concerning.
While the California Employment Development Department calculated a growth of 13.3% in commercial construction jobs between 2020-2030, in contrast, a survey of construction companies convened in the employer collaborative revealed projected job growth of more than double that figure. Demand for construction workers in the Sacramento region is outstripping supply, and the conventional calculation of job projections has not been able to keep pace with the rapid changes of an economy thrown into even greater flux by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Surveys of the employer collaborative also uncovered disparities in participation in the construction workforce. People of color and women were underrepresented in employment, even though, according to the 2020 census, Sacramento is the third most diverse county in California, with a diversity index of 73.3%. Moreover, the majority of respondents to the employer collaborative survey had a friend or family member in the construction sector. The pathway to enter the industry needs demystifying in order to open up equitable access.
There has been a squandered opportunity for individuals without four-year degrees to enter this workforce and achieve upward mobility and a higher standard of living. Professor Ryan Connally, a construction department chair at Los Rios concurs, noting that his students are, “majority 20-somethings who finished high school, went right to work and got stuck in service sector jobs. They hit a ceiling and salary cap.” He said, “the best way I can say it is, they’ve been essentially underfunded in life.”
The employer collaborative recognized that outreach and support for communities of color and formerly incarcerated people to train and enter the construction industry could improve equitable outcomes in a transformative way. It could build and sustain healthy communities, while driving systemic change and solutions for the construction industry, too. To Kaiser Permanente, this wasn’t just about completing its own hospital construction projects now; it was about opening up opportunities to people who have historically faced barriers to entry.
Carolina Lapuc, a young woman awarded the Promise to Career scholarship said, “I’m originally from Poland, neither of my parents went to college, no one has really been in construction before, so I’m the first in my family as well doing that.”
“With strong starting wages, paid training, and long-term professional prospects, construction careers have the potential to deliver stability and wealth creation for a large group of people entering the workforce or looking for new careers,” said Yvette Radford, Kaiser Permanente Northern California vice president of External and Community Affairs.
Thus, Kaiser Permanente spearheaded the Promise to Career: Construction program with an initial $250,000 contribution. Students receive a $500 scholarship upon enrollment in qualifying construction and pre-apprenticeship programs and another $500 upon completion of a certificate. Other program enhancements include helping students envision participation in the construction sector through employer engagement on campus and visits for students to employer job sites. The Los Rios Colleges Foundation has leveraged this initial gift with a campaign that kicked off in April 2022 and has raised over $60,000 so far from community partners and individuals to provide more scholarships.
Across the nation, community college enrollment dropped by 15% during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to National Student Clearinghouse, but Professor Connally credits the Promise to Career scholarship with a “profound” improvement in enrollment. “I think it stems mostly from our transition post-COVID. I believe students who are drawn to career and tech programs, in general, are not interested in doing online education.” But, he says, “If we can get the word out about the enrollment scholarship, then we can also improve our student success rates with the completion scholarship.”
Within days of beginning the construction classes, students are building outdoor redwood chairs, and by week three or four they are building tiny houses. One of the most rewarding aspects of the program is the collaboration with Sacramento Habitat for Humanity, where students work off site every week contributing their skills to support Sacramento’s unhoused population.
“For a long time, I wanted to work with my hands, and I thought I would do physical therapy, but my grades were not the best,” said Spencer Kwong, another construction student. “So, I decided to go the construction trade route. After the first week, we were working with skill saws and it felt great, interesting, and different.”
Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s Promise to Career: Construction scholarship fund here.