By Steve Martarano
Youth corps member Brandi House was one of the first to step up to the power line at Sacramento’s SMUD Power Academy on a warm mid-July morning. Using a long, orange pole called a “shotgun,” House received instructions on the exacting process of how to de-energize a transformer.
“You got the eye right there with the shotgun,” SMUD lineman apprentice Justin Ramirez patiently told House, who intently followed instructions. “Stick it up a little bit and then you turn to the left and it opens the jaw and pops open.”
It took a couple of tries, but House got the job done, amid claps and cheers from the rest of the group.
The transformer lesson was one of the several hands-on training activities House, and eight other members of a new youth jobs corps program, #CaliforniansForAll Youth Job Corps, gained from SMUD staff that day.
Accompanied by managers of the Sierra Service Project, the group members — halfway through an 8-week summer curriculum, which wrapped up Aug. 4 — arrived together in a van from their North Sacramento office, ready to tackle another learning experience. Other agencies in Sacramento participating include the Sacramento Tree Foundation, Green Tech and Greater Sacramento Urban League.
The program, in partnership with local governments and community-based organizations across California, employs underserved young people ages 16-30 with paid internships and on-the-job training, helping them gain skills in priority areas such as COVID-19 recovery, learning loss, food insecurity, and climate change.
“The best part of the program is honestly learning the different career opportunities that we have, and learning how to be a team leader; a leader within yourself,” House said later, after gaining the basics on SMUD-related jobs. House learned how to climb a power pole and wear a lineman’s body belt, while getting an introduction to the utility company’s numerous apprenticeship opportunities.
Sacramento, which will serve 600 young people in the initial round (10,000 statewide), is one of 27 cities and counties across California involved during its first year, said Josh Fryday, California’s chief service officer who oversees California Volunteers. The program started with an initial $185 million grant state allocation, with another $78.1 million recently approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2023-24 fiscal year budget.
The program prioritizes hiring those most in need — the unemployed, those from low-income communities, those exiting foster care, or those involved with the justice, mental health or substance abuse systems — while also offering wraparound services such as training in case management and resume preparation. Members work at least 50 percent full-time equivalent and earn a minimum of $15.50 per hour, with many programs offering longer hours and up to $30 per hour.
“For me, the biggest difference is being able to pay people for their time and to incentivize their learning,” said Maximilian Rosa, the Sacramento programs manager for the Sierra Service Project, which manages 11 members going through the program. “Yes, knowledge is valuable, but being able to actually employ people to develop their skills, I think, is far more impactful.”
Rosa said SSP is in the process of recruiting up to 16 members for its second session scheduled to start in September.
“(In the program) everybody teaches each other some type of leadership skill, or some type of life skill,” corps member House said. “All of us have been through different backgrounds and different situations. A few of us have been homeless; a few of us are LGBT. And so we have a lot of different backgrounds and different stereotypes that we have to fight through.”
Fryday said they’ve been very encouraged by the program’s first year and growth potential.
“We’ve seen that there’s demand, there’s interest, there’s excitement to do this,” said Fryday, a former mayor of Novato, appointed by Gov. Newsom in 2019. “The initial intent is we want to make sure every Californian, especially those who are too often not included in these kinds of programs, have the opportunity to serve.”
Fryday said the additional fiscal year allocation will allow the program to increase recruitment efforts for new sectors such as those identified as “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children), those under the nonresident tuition exemption bill Assembly Bill 540 and tribal youth.
“We’re starting to expand who the target audience is going to be, which I think is just going to allow us to be more inclusive in providing these incredible opportunities,” Fryday said.
Leilani Koroiveti, part of the group at the SMUD training, said she has been “trying to find my footing a little bit” after moving to Sacramento from Fiji in 2019 and has found the program was a good fit.
“There’s quite a few hoops you have to jump through (to get through college) so right now I’m just trying to find work, anything that can get started quickly,” said Koroiveti, who studied computer science in Fiji and had planned on finishing college in the United States.
Koroiveti said some of the training opportunities accessed through Sierra Service Project in irrigation design, gardening, construction and landscaping might be good career options. “I’m learning how to maintain land, so it’s been very productive.”
Yemanya Napue, the education and urban agricultural specialist for SSP and Sacramento Sustainability Academy, said the visit to SMUD fits into the SSP’s curriculum because electricity is a form of sustainability.
“I know how imperative it is for them to learn, first of all, how electricity is made, how it’s transmitted, how it’s controlled,” she said while watching students interact with SMUD staff. “What does it take to shut it off and shut it on? Who’s doing the work and what type of work are they doing?”
Fryday noted several early success stories for the program, including several full-time hires by California State Parks and the City of San Diego from the first pool of job corps graduates. He said one of the features of the program is that it’s structured with the flexibility for cities and counties to tailor it for their specific community needs.
“There’s some themes we’ve identified as community priorities — like climate change, like food insecurity, like education disparities — where many of the members are focused,” Fryday said. “But for each community, that looks different. Whereas Sacramento might be focused on tree planting, another community might be focused on fire mitigation work, or creating community gardens or doing river cleanup like they’re doing in LA.”
Meanwhile, corps member Keke Moore of Sacramento said one benefit of the program is how members have bonded.
“As a team we’re growing stronger working together, because where we all came from we didn’t know each other like that,” Moore said. “And now we’re strong. It’s like a family.”
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19. Take our reader survey.