This local college program connects students with $18-an-hour jobs in little time

San Saeteurn took welding classes at American River College for only a few months before he was tapped by recruiters from Siemens USA who came to one of his classes.

“They teach you what you need to know and if you stick with it you can go anywhere,” said Saeteurn, 24.

The Sacramento resident expects to be working on railcars and other projects for the international company at its Sacramento site. It will be a substantial increase in pay, compared to his former job at a warehouse.

High demand for properly trained welders, mechanics, emergency medical technicians and other vocations has prompted California to expand classes that lead directly to jobs in those fields.

The Strong Workforce Program pumps $200 million annually into career education programs – formerly called career technical education programs – with 60 percent of funding going to individual colleges and 40 percent going to regional programs.

The funding nearly triples the amount spent on career education at the four colleges in the Los Rios Community College District, according to Jamey Nye, Los Rios vice chancellor of education and technology.

The college system already receives about $2 million annually in federal funding for career education programs. The Strong Workforce Program adds $5.2 million in state funding and shares $7 million with 15 colleges as part of a regional consortium. The funding can be used over three years.

Colleges also are eligible for competitive funds bestowed on the programs that do the best job of moving students from the classroom to the workplace.

“Ultimately that is the goal – more students into the schools,” Nye said. “We have a strong interest in making sure they are on a pathway and are successful.”

The result: more course offerings and staff hires, updated curriculum and additional support for students while they are in school and job hunting.

In return, the state requires colleges to use labor market data to determine which courses to offer and teach the basic job skills employers want.

Trish Caldwell, dean of technical education at American River College, said the heightened emphasis on career education is long overdue.

“In our efforts to make sure that every student that wants to go to college has that opportunity, we have totally overlooked and undervalued all of these fabulous careers,” she said.

American River College has almost 50 technical education programs on campus, including classes on alternative fuels, design technology, electronics, horticulture and welding, Caldwell said. All told, California Community Colleges offers more than 200 career education programs.

To ensure students move through their programs and into jobs, community colleges have ramped up student job placement support. As a result, American River College has counselors in its technical education office for the first time, Caldwell said.

The school also took the word “vocational” off of the building where the technical education programs are taught. She said the word can be considered by some as pejorative.

American River College plans to add classes as enrollment grows.

The state launched a $3 million marketing campaign in July to inform people about career education. The program includes advertising in English and Spanish, online videos, and outreach at local events and through social media.

“Research results showed that there was a real lack of knowledge of what CTE (now Career Education) is and that that lack of knowledge was the biggest barrier to enrollment,” said Paul Feist, spokesman for California Community Colleges, in an email.

Demand for welders is so high that employers post job listings in the lab at American River College where Saeteurn and his classmates practice their new skills. Some employers call instructors directly looking for qualified workers.

They can all expect jobs that start at about $18 with little experience, said Christopher Messier, who got his start in the ARC program and went to work at GNB Corporation before returning as an instructor at the college.

“You can easily earn six figures a year if you are more experienced or a journeyman,” Messier said.

GNB Corporation in Elk Grove has benefited from hiring students from the American River College welding program for years. Sam Halbert, 24, is the latest hire from the community college welding program.

He is looking forward to the experience of working at the well-regarded company. “It’s more of just the atmosphere, the people, what you learn,” he said.

Mel Sattler, GNB production manager, said he is happy with the employees he has hired from the community college.

“They do a pretty nice job,” Sattler said, though he added that they have some training gaps to fill. The company, which fabricates vacuum hardware and components for scientific and industrial applications, has on-the-job training to get new employees up to speed.

American River College offers a number of options for its career education students, including certificates or a 37-unit associate of arts degree that includes classes in math and metallurgy.

Workers often seek out the program to earn certificates that earn them extra pay at their jobs. Ultrasonic inspection, one of the most popular welding classes at the school, draws people from throughout the state for weekend classes, Messier said.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert