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At 47, Ibrahim Mohamed doesn’t fit the typical image of a college intern. When he arrived in the U.S. from Sudan in 2016, he went online to look for a steady job and decided he wanted to be an electrician at a water treatment facility.

A few years later, he started his internship, which is part of a state program known as a “High Road Training Partnership.” The focus is on training workers for “high road” jobs, defined as those that pay a living wage, provide opportunities for promotion, guarantee safe working conditions, and may offer other benefits, such as a union.

Since 2014, California has put roughly $370 million toward High Road job training, said Erin Hickey, a spokesperson for the California Workforce Development Board, in an email. The board, which administers the program, refused multiple requests for an interview.

In Mohamed’s case, the money went to Jewish Vocational Service, a Bay Area nonprofit organization that worked with local water treatment districts and community colleges to create the internship. The water district is responsible for paying the interns, who work part-time, by way of an intermediary, and at a rate of $27 an hour.

While the internship doesn’t cover all of his bills, Mohamed is committed to it and the future it could hold. In 2019, he moved from West Oakland to settle in Pittsburg, about 45 minutes away, in order to take night classes at Los Medanos College and intern with the Contra Costa Water District two days a week.

The rest of the week he works as a programmer for a Canadian company. He started working there while living in Sudan. “It pays better,” he said, speaking of his programming job, “but it’s not continuous.” Some projects pay as much as $3,000, he said, but other times, the company gives him no work at all.

“I need a stable job. I don’t like moving from place to place,” he said.

The High Road programs vary by industry. In some cases, like Mohamed’s internship, the state is trying to expand access to jobs that are already considered “high road,” even if the supply of jobs is limited or highly technical. In other cases, the money is meant to transform “low road” jobs — those with low pay, poor working conditions, and few opportunities for advancement — into better ones.

The High Road program is an improvement compared to many other workforce programs, which often prioritize training people for jobs regardless of the quality, said Laura Dresser, the associate director of the High Road Strategy Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She helped coin the term “high road” and served as a consultant to California’s workforce programs in 2017.

While other states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have made similar efforts, she said California’s program is larger and more systematic. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has allocated most of the money and tried to focus on jobs that promote sustainability. High Road jobs are also a part of his Master Plan for Career Education, to be released later this year.

However, as the state faces a $38 billion budget deficit for the 2024-25 fiscal year, Newsom recently proposed cutting roughly $100 million from workforce development, most of which comes from High Road Training Partnerships or related programs.

A job program that helps employers, too

The state’s High Road program is designed to be a “partnership,” something that’s mutually beneficial for both employers and workers, said Hickey in the email. As Mohamed looks for a stable job, the water treatment industry is aging, with a higher percentage of skilled workers ready to retire than in other professions across the state, according to a 2023 report.

It’s a “silver tsunami,” said Steven Currie, the workforce development program manager for the Contra Costa Water District. He said the district is also trying to diversify its staff. An internal survey of employees found that the water district is disproportionately white and male, compared to the county population.

A pair of gloved hands holds a yellow module with buttons and a small lit screen that showcases a variety of data.

Intern Ibrahim Mohamed performs a maintenance check on a temperature sensor inside a Contra Costa Water District plant in Oakley, Jan. 30, 2024.

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Loren Elliott

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CalMatters

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A few decades ago, the district had a pipeline of skilled labor that came from a nearby paper and steel mill and from employees at the oil refineries near Concord and Martinez. The paper mill is gone now, the steel mill is about to close, and many of the oil refineries are shifting to renewable energy. A job posting for an electrician that used to get 25 to 30 applications now sees less than half that, said Matthew Novak, the district’s maintenance manager.

Over the past six years, Jewish Vocational Service has received a series of state grants, totaling just shy of $3 million, to help create a pipeline of new talent for the water and wastewater industry.

While the jobs come with benefits, such as healthcare and a pension, and the wages are good — with the lowest salary starting at around $65,000 a year — these positions require years of specialized training that can be hard to come by, said Elizabeth Toups, a senior manager for the organization.

Mohamed has about two years of experience, but the specific position he wants, known as an instrument technician, requires five years. The Contra Costa Water District has seven employees working in that role, and even if he had the experience, none of those positions are currently open.

In its reports to the state, Jewish Vocational Service said the number of job placements in the water and wastewater industry fell below expectations. Toups said many trainees ultimately find work in other fields that need specialized electricians, such as construction or electric vehicle manufacturing.

“That’s not necessarily a loss, as far as we’re concerned,” she said. “Those people are getting jobs, and they’re getting that valuable experience.”

What’s working in workforce training?

In other cases, however, the outcomes have been mixed.

In 2021, the Miguel Contreras Foundation, a nonprofit training partner of the Los Angeles AFL-CIO, received nearly $650,000 to train electric bus mechanics in the San Gabriel Valley. The largest participating employer, Proterra, hired 11 of participants, but the company — once heralded as a leader in electric vehicle technology — filed for bankruptcy not long after.

The same year, the nonprofit organization Equitable Food Initiative submitted a proposal to help “improve the wages and working conditions for more farmworkers in the state” while helping farms mitigate climate change. With a $600,000 state grant, the organization taught several farm operators how to reduce waste and increase recycling and composting.

“It’s helped the workers a little because the fields are cleaner, and we’ve learned how to recycle, how to separate plastic, cardboard, and aluminum,” said Benancio Estrada Martinez, the harvest manager at GoodFarms, which grows strawberries in Santa Maria. It was one of three businesses that participated in the Equitable Food Initiative’s High Road program.

As large retailers face pressure to cut costs and reduce greenhouse gasses, they put that pressure on smaller suppliers like GoodFarms, said Peter O’Driscoll, the executive director of the Equitable Food Initiative. He said this program provided workers and employers an opportunity to jointly decide how their industry could further cut emissions.

By selling its cardboard to a local recycling company, the farm has made at least $7,000, money that the workers decide how to spend. Current ideas include a raffle, a barbecue, or splitting the proceeds evenly between the workers, said Gabriela Gamez, who oversees the project, known as the Green Team.

“Lunches, barbecues, things like that — I don’t think we’re going to pretend that’s a life changing experience for the worker,” said O’Driscoll. Creating a system that yields more benefits for the workers would require reforming the industry. “In an agricultural (sector) that’s driven by low prices, the only place employers have to squeeze is workers.”

Lunches, barbecues, things like that — I don’t think we’re going to pretend that’s a life changing experience for the worker.

— Peter O’Driscoll, executive director of the Equitable Food Initiative

In 2021, the UCLA Labor Center released a state-funded evaluation of the High Road programs, which primarily described what programs did, without using any quantitative performance metrics. The team recently received another grant from the state and will release a second evaluation in stages over the next two years. The final piece of that evaluation will include a new method to assess success, one that doesn’t focus on metrics that workforce programs typically use , such as wages and employment rates.

For Mohamed, the most important outcome is getting a full-time job. The nearby East Bay Municipal Utilities District recently lowered the experience level needed for entry-level instrument technicians, and Mohamed said he’d consider applying there if an opportunity arises.

The East Bay Municipal Utilities District has a location in Walnut Creek, which is about 20 minutes from Pittsburg. “Maybe I work in Walnut Creek,” he said. Otherwise, he may need to move again.

“As long as I get my foot in the door, I’m going to do it,” he said. “If I need to move, I’m going to do it. I’m not going to hesitate.”

Financial support for this story was provided by the Smidt Foundation.

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