In a portable classroom located on the far end of the College of Alameda campus in Alameda, Bill Gravel is running through the particulars of the next project for his Introduction to Warehousing Operations class: He's assigned teams of students to design a local or regional warehouse.
The jovial banter between Gravel and his sixteen students involves some efforts by the students to convince their instructor to let them make some trades among the teams he's selected, but Gravel presses on. He's got a guest speaker from Voice-Insight coming in to talk about a voice recognition program the students may use on the job someday soon, and a hazmat certification course for them to complete next week.
The six-week class is part of the College of Alameda's two-year-old Allied Transportation and Logistics Academic Support (ATLAS) program, a warehousing and transportation logistics program developed with the aid of local businesses and some sizeable federal grants. It and other programs like it are thriving, despite state funding cuts that have forced public colleges to dramatically scale back other offerings or shut their doors to new students.
The programs are designed to turn out skilled workers for the industries that surround each school. Students run the gamut age-wise, from newer workers in their twenties to others in their fifties who need retraining in new industries.
"My objective is to get these guys to where they can talk the talk and basically walk the walk," said Gravel, who has spent forty years in the warehousing industry and who is president of the Northern California branch of the Warehousing Education and Research Council. "So they will have that skill set, knowledge base. So when they go into an employer, they don't have that glazed-over look in their eye.
"I think when they get out of here, they'll be well-ahead of the curve of most folks," he added. "In this industry, it's all on-the-job learning. It's a big up for these guys."
Marlon Smith, 47, who was laid off from his last job in 2009, signed up to learn more about the forklift and, he hopes, to find someone who will hire him. "It gives me a great opportunity to just get my foot in the door," Smith said during a break in a recent class.
The ATLAS program came out of a report generated by the Oakland Partnership, a group put together by Oakland's Chamber of Commerce and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, said Lorraine Giordano, the program's manager. The report identified five industries the city should focus on developing, including transportation logistics.
The College of Alameda and five other community colleges partnered with the ports of Oakland and Stockton; Oakland International Airport; businesses that included FedEx, UPS, 7-Up Bottling/Cadbury Schweppes; and a broad array of workforce development and government groups to start the program. Start-up money included a $2.3 million Community-based Job Training Grant from the Department of Labor and $3.1 million in funds pooled from elsewhere.
In additional to warehousing and logistics courses, ATLAS offers basic math, English brush-up and training in resume-writing and interviewing, plus case management and job development services, Giordano said. "Our program is a full package," she said.
The programs are popular with students and employers alike. Giordano said the program has trained hundreds of students in its warehouse operations and forklift program alone — and posted a job-placement rate of more than 65 percent.
"Before, we would do a lot of outreach to employers to let them know about our program," Giordano said. "We're now getting calls from employers about hiring our graduates."
Community colleges have traditionally focused on providing speedy workforce training. But these new programs are the product of an unprecedented level of collaboration between the schools, local industry, and local workforce development organizations.
As such, they offer pre-employment training that was never before available, specifically tailored to local industry.
Joseph Luppino of Give Something Back, an Oakland-based office-products company with seventy employees that is part of that partnership, noted that Alameda County is a hub for transportation, package handling, and distribution for the Bay Area and Northern California. And Luppino thinks there's a shortage of skilled workers to handle those jobs.
In the past, future workers might only have had access to general business classes, but nothing specific to his industry. But now, the operations manager and others like him can pick from a pool of trained workers.
"If I was looking for a new supervisor, someone from this program would be an incredible candidate," Luppino said.
Meanwhile, Los Medanos College in Pittsburg has a process-technology program designed to train people to work in the surrounding refineries and chemical companies. The program was started in late 2006 to retrain former United Airlines mechanics, but is now open to anyone, said outreach coordinator Jim Martin.
Before the program was put in place, local refineries and other companies would look out of state for skilled, entry-level workers. But those workers would quickly leave California for cheaper environs, the college's web site noted.
So Los Medanos put together a nine-course program in concert with several oil companies, workforce development groups in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Los Angeles Harbor College, and several local school districts. And with the aid of a $1.5 million community-based job training grant from the Department of Labor, the college can offer its classes tuition-free through the end of this year.
The biggest challenge was getting the word out on a career that can pay well — starting salaries can be as high as $80,000, Martin said — but that isn't particularly well known.
"No child when they grow up says, 'I want to be a process technician,'" Martin said.
But aggressive outreach all the way down to the high school level has paid off, Martin said. Classes were full the past two semesters, and look to be full again this semester.
Helping build and teach the programs has paid off for local businesses, too. Ken Dami, a Martinez-based spokesman for Tesoro, an independent refinery company, said he sees the program as a joint win for his company, prospective workers, and Los Medanos. His company helped design the process technology program — the only one of its kind in Northern California and one of only a few dozen in the country — and some of its employees teach courses in it.
"One of the best things for us is, we're able to organically grow the future workforce from our own communities, as opposed to having people come from somewhere else that might have concerns with housing prices or family issues," Dami said. "We have lots of folks here that are ready, willing, and able to take on the responsibilities and grow within a company."
The machines that refine oil at the Martinez facility need skilled operators to run them, and Los Medanos' program prepares them for that work, Dami said.
Just getting their charges past a dizzying array of workplace lingo is a big hill to climb. Gennifer Tate, who helped design and also teaches some of the courses in the program, said one student told her she was struggling to figure out the terminology she heard in the San Francisco steamship office where she worked.
"When our time was over, she said she felt confident going into the office and understanding with the training we were giving her," said Tate, human resources manager for Berkeley Farms.
Back in Alameda, Gravel's pride and joy is an eight-page list of lingo he created for his warehouse operations students, complete with definitions. "It's a living document," he said.
The Department of Labor has been handing out the grants to improve community colleges' ability to train workers in high-growth and emerging industries. The community-based job training grant program has awarded $622 million over its four years of existence, including $125 million in its final round of funding in late June.
The money has helped Ohlone College maintain and even expand courses it offers through the Bay Area Biotech Consortium's Career Pathways Project, a partnership that includes Skyline College in San Bruno, workforce investment boards on both sides of the Bay, and a group of biotech companies that includes South San Francisco-based Genentech.
"Right now, we can't offer as many classes; we are at the mercy of the budget," said Leta Stagnaro, associate vice president of academic affairs at Ohlone, which has campuses in Fremont and Newark. The college is now offering half the summer courses it had last year. But federal money directed through the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board has allowed the Career Pathways Project to grow. "It allows us to provide training programs for more folks than we would normally be able to," Stagnaro added.
Giordano said she's working to expand the ATLAS program. The school and its partners designed a diesel retrofit program for truckers and others so they can upgrade their equipment, and an office administration for logistics program is set to be offered in September. She also is working to create training programs that can be offered directly at job sites.
"Our next step in developing our outreach to businesses is to offer customized training for workers," Giordano said. "It can be on-site and at the college as well."