By Joyce Tsai, East Bay Times – August 29, 2016

Earlier this week, 15-year-old Anai Melendrez donned a helmet and safety goggles and wielded a welding torch with an accurate, steady hand.

A top performer in a computerized welding exercise that helps to simulate the real-life experience, the Fremont High student was among a class of about eight students who are getting a taste of what it would be like to work in the construction fields, as part of an innovative five-week construction pre-apprentice pilot program for Oakland high schoolers launched by UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.

“My whole family is in the construction industry, so I have always been into this, ” she said. “Since the time I could walk, my dad would take me to his jobs, and I would help him out and learn the basics.”

During her class’s visit to the Carpenters Training Committee for Northern California’s apprentice training center in Pleasanton, Anai and her classmates also got to experience a blueprint-reading class, learn what millwrights do (maintain and repair machinery) and learn how much a beginning carpenter’s apprentice makes: $26.64 per hour in the Bay Area, which can rise to $44.40 per hour after the apprenticeship ends.

Part of the hospital’s 10-year master plan to modernize its facilities, the hospital’s pre-apprenticeship program aims to create workforce opportunities for the Oakland community the hospital serves. The high school training program features construction site tours of the hospital’s planned new outpatient clinic, which is part of the hospital’s $500 million project to rebuild and modernize its facilities.

And it will give students a chance to try their hand at sketching and designing landscaping at Helen McGregor Plaza near the hospital. But the program doesn’t just focus on hospital building; it prepares and exposes young students to the construction field by featuring tours of various construction-training facilities throughout the East Bay.

Also, young students get to visit BART, as well as an Oakland Planning Commission meeting and the city’s Business Licensing Department to see building approval and permitting in action. It also features lectures by guest speakers, including the hospital expansion project’s architects, HDR, and general contractor, Turner Construction, as well as classroom instruction on tool handling and construction safety.

“It’s a bit of a unique opportunity that we have,” said Doug Nelson, the hospital’s vice president of construction and facilities development, explaining how the program is geared toward exposing high school students to all the major elements of a major construction project from design to actual construction.

Emiliano Sanchez, director of career technical trades and apprenticeships at Oakland Unified School District, said the program was helping to fill the void that resulted after the dismantling of Regional Occupational Programs, which used to help high schoolers explore different technical careers, more than 20 years ago, not just in Oakland but across the state.

“If we are truly going to graduate our students career and college ready, we have to expose them to all the career options, including all the technical fields,” he said. Sometimes it takes nine years for a student to figure out the career that’s right for them, he said: “We want to cut down on that time.”

Anai said the program was giving her invaluable experience in understanding the different aspects of construction.

“I remember seeing him pouring concrete, building a ditch and building decks, and he did a little bit of everything,” she said of watching her dad work, while growing up. “When I was small, I thought construction was just building, and then you see all the different parts it takes to build a house.”

And the extra training and early preparation, she believes, will help her to succeed in a male-dominated industry.

“It’s hard work,” she said. “But I always want to show them women can do the same as men — and oftentimes better.”