L.A. County teens earn while they learn: Paid summer program offers pathways to skilled trades careers

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High school student Nataliah Castro measures an engine while her instructor Brent Tuttle supervises as part of the LA County Skilled Trades Summers program (Photo by Ben Gibbs/Harbor Freight Tools for Schools)

California Construction News staff writer

Students from across Los Angeles County will get paid while earning credentials in skilled trades including construction, welding and solar panel installation, as part of an expanding initiative to offer students pathways to good-paying jobs in industries seeing booming demand.

More than 400 teens have signed up to participate at one of eight program sites in communities from San Pedro to La Mirada to Canoga Park. The unique exposure to skilled trades education is a partnership with community organizations, public schools and industry veterans. By using the “earn and learn” model as a basis for the program, students can earn money for themselves and their families while working towards a career.

“Growing up, it was hard for me until in high school I discovered welding,” said Juan-Carlos Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant who won multiple high school welding competitions before graduating and starting his own welding business in Riverside. “My uncle would tell me ‘you gotta find something you like because then it won’t feel like a job anymore. It will be like a hobby, but you get paid.’ So, I just kept going.”

L.A. County Skilled Trades Summers was launched by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, the flagship program of The Smidt Foundation, to introduce teens to meaningful skilled trades careers and give them foundational skills for success well before they graduate.

Fewer than 1 in 5 public high schools in L.A. County offer any type of skilled trades education.

The summer programs aim to be part of the solution to a growing problem: skilled trades professionals are retiring faster than they can be replaced, yet there are few direct pipelines to these jobs because skilled trades classes have been removed from most L.A. high schools.

“We are going to hit rock bottom sooner or later where companies are not going to be able to find workers that are skilled and that will teach the new generation,” added Hernandez.

A recent report from Associated Builders and Contractors found the need to recruit over 342,000 new workers on top of normal hiring to meet demand this year alone in the United States. Another report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be demand for nearly 200,000 additional skilled trades workers each year for the next ten years in areas such as plumbing, pipefitting, carpentry and electrical.

“Our summer programs provide a really strong foundation in a variety of skilled trades that sets students up for success and connects them with incredible teachers and mentors,” said Belen Vargas, L.A. County Program Director at Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “Giving students an early opportunity to explore career pathways can be – and often is – life changing.”

Julianna Espinoza, a high school senior who participated in last summer’s welding program at Port of Los Angeles High School, said access to skilled trades education in high school is particularly valuable.

“This is a great opportunity,” she said. “Why wait until you get to college or outside of high school to take on this new skill when you can do it in high school and already have a head start?”

The summer programs filled up quickly and many have waiting lists, reflecting growing interest in skilled trades education. In fact, recent research showed that nearly seven in 10 Los Angeles County high school students would consider taking a skilled trades class if it were offered; and supermajorities of parents would encourage their child to take a skilled trades class, regardless of whether their child was college-bound.

Students will receive high-quality, hands-on instruction in advanced manufacturing, automotive technology, carpentry, construction, electrical, solar installation or welding, depending on the program site. Some program participants will earn advanced industry credentials that can lead to entry-level employment. Others will earn college credits. Some programs will include jobsite projects where they use the hands-on skills they’ve mastered.

The 2024 summer program runs from June 3 to August 16 depending on the site. For more information about the program, click here.

Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is the flagship program of The Smidt Foundation, established by Harbor Freight Tools owner and founder Eric Smidt, to advance excellent skilled trades education in U.S. public high schools.

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