Sep 21, 2023

Promise 360 sparks interest in trades for San Marcos teens

"For those of you who figure out that maybe college isn't what you want to pursue, there is a ton of opportunity outside of college," said Richard Johnson, general manager at Action Air Conditioning, Heating & Solar.

Johnson was speaking to about a dozen seniors from Twin Oaks and Mission Hills high schools who were gathered at Action's San Marcos warehouse to get an up-close look at one of the many non-college career options available to them.

The work site visit was part of the new Promise 360 program started this school year by the San Marcos Promise nonprofit to support graduating seniors in the San Marcos Unified School District who plan to enter the workforce immediately after graduation.

"We are focusing specifically on seniors who are choosing to enter the workforce after high school … just to open their eyes to all the different careers that exist," said Lisa Stout, executive director of the San Marcos Promise, which helps kids prepare for their future beyond high school.

As a former school counselor for nearly 20 years, Stout says she was among those who steered her students toward the traditional "four-year path," which she said is great but not for every student.

The year-long program is called Promise 360 because it focuses on exposing students to every aspect they need to succeed professionally — from developing leadership skills to learning about the numerous non-college career options and deciding which is the right fit, Stout explained.

"We want them to be successful no matter what industry or job they choose," Stout added.

The program then directly links students to local businesses with job openings. Stout says the goal is to help students shift away from common jobs that are often part-time, with lower wages, and toward higher-paying careers in full-time positions with benefits and growth potential.

Stout says the push for students to attend college has unintentionally cut off a crucial pipeline in the education of the skilled trades via apprenticeships and internships.

Analyses in recent years have found employers unable to fill mid-level jobs in skilled trades in part because students are steered toward college. Recent labor statistics suggest that's still the case.

A recent analysis by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated that there are 9.5 million job openings in the U.S. but only 5.6 million unemployed workers — meaning that if everyonefound a job, there would still be nearly 4 million unfilled positions. And a disproportionate number of those are skilled labor, according to the chamber, which has previously reported that finding skilled labor remains a challenge for contractors.

Employers nationwide, meanwhile, are stepping up their hiring, adding 339,000 positions just last month, Friday's jobs report showed. Many industries still adding jobs to keep pace with consumer demand, and to get back to pre-pandemic staffing levels.

Johnson says he can attest to the difficulty hiring, explaining that as older workers retire, Action is having more trouble finding younger people trained to take their jobs.

"Our biggest struggle is finding qualified workers who can pass a background and drug test," Johnson said. "So we figured if we can't hire them, let's create."

Last year, Action created its own academy to train the next generation of heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians, using a four- to six-week crash course to teach students the fundamentals of heating and air.

Marissa Sanchez, a career and financial aid coach for the San Marcos Promise at Mission Hills, says she saw firsthand students struggling with education, especially after the pandemic.

"A lot of them really need that hands-on work to be motivated in what they’re doing every day," she said.

During their visit to Action last month, students got a glimpse into HVAC work as they toured the warehouse, heard from professionals in the field and sat in on an Action Academy class, where a dozen students were learning about wiring thermostats.

Johnson went on to explain to the visiting high school seniors that a career in HVAC can involve various trades, from electrical to plumbing, and positions, from residential to commercial to sales. "There's a lot of different aspects to our trade — it's not just one size fits all," he said.

The San Marcos Promise has partnered with a range of local companies in various fields, including EDCO San Marcos, the city of San Marcos, the Vallecitos Water District and Diamond Environmental Services. Stout says these companies all need workers and have openings for different types of good-paying jobs with benefits and room for growth.

"It's going to be a win-win for the student and the company," Stout added. "I think it's really going to make a huge difference in their lives."

Mission Hills senior Luis Garcia was among those who didn't believe college was the right path for him after graduation.

"There's a lot of kids in high school that don't know what they’re going to do after high school," the Mission Hills senior said. The Promise 360 program "just really gives you more options that you really did not think you had."

Garcia was able to choose a construction apprenticeship program that was right for him and also learn other useful skills, like time management.

Vanessa Mendoza has aspirations of becoming a nurse, but worried the necessary schooling would be too lengthy. "I felt like I was going to give up halfway through it," the Mission Hills senior said.

Then after her dad died in November, she dropped out of high school. "It was really hard, because I really didn't know what to do," Mendoza said. "I needed motivation."

She says she found that motivation in Promise 360, where she learned she could still explore a career in the medical field. The program helped "show us that anything is possible and that you don't have to go to college to be successful in life," she added.