Jennifer Arce was tired of what she calls “dead-end jobs. I needed a career with stability, benefits and retirement — I didn’t have that with my other jobs,” Arce said. “I was at a dinner with a friend who told me about two women who were working a union construction job with 1,000 workers. There were the only two women. And they were good at what they did. It piqued my interest.”
So, 10 years ago, at age 43, the San Diego native joined Union Ironworkers 229 in San Diego to begin a new career in construction.
That move has paid off, literally.
During her career, Arce has worked on several large-scale solar projects, helped build wind turbines and the San Diego Trolley’s extension from Old Town to University Town Center.
“I’m so passionate about what the building trades have to offer,” she said.
Now 53, not only has Arce been working in the construction field as an ironworker with better benefits and a solid retirement plan, the job also has allowed her to explore other opportunities, such as taking journey-level upgrade classes.
Through her union membership, Arce also earned certifications that allowed her to pursue a job in education. She is also an instructor at Southwestern College, which just graduated its first group of cohorts that were part of a High Road Construction Apprenticeship Readiness Program (ARP).
On May 31, 10 students looking for careers in the construction industry graduated from the program that Arce and Jon Gosen lead at the school. The classes meet three times a week, two four-hour night classes and a full-day Saturday class for three months.
Maria Ramirez was one of the graduates from the program. A 43-year-old single mother of three, Ramirez said she initially enrolled in the program to get a forklift certificate.
The program description didn’t specifically mention a forklift, but she understood it would offer learning opportunities such as introduction to construction trades and certificates in safety training.
“I came out of the program with a new perspective on trades in construction,” she said.
The pilot program at SWC began as partnership with the San Diego County Building & Construction Trades Council (SDCBCTC) and San Diego Workforce Partnership to address a growing need for more minorities, women, military veterans and other underrepresented communities to get in those fields.
According to the SDBCTC, more than 10,000 skilled workers are needed in coming years to meet the demand of construction projects in San Diego County.
Tracy Eckard, director of energy, construction and utilities at SDWP, said It has long been the SDWP’s intention to collaborate with Southwestern on the ARP.
“In fact, Southwestern has been waiting patiently for us to come up with the funding to launch the first of what we hope are many cohorts,” Eckard said. “Also, very plainly speaking, if we want more equitable representation in the program and industry-wide, we need to meet individuals where they are and offer programs in diverse communities.”
The MC3 program prepares participants for acceptance into state registered construction apprenticeship programs, exposing them to the construction industry and a wide range of trades.
“This exposure is invaluable as it familiarizes those considering a career in construction with lesser-known trades such as cement masons, glaziers, roofers and ironworkers, alongside well-known ones such as electricians, plumbers and carpenters,” said SDCBCTC spokesperson Ansermio Jake Estrada.
Southwestern’s 12-week program joined the San Diego Community College District’s San Diego College of Continuing Education (SDCCE) in the effort; the SDCCCE just recently graduated its 10th cohort.
Together, the programs have successfully placed 97% of graduates into construction careers, including local union apprenticeships.