By Janelle Wetzstein, ARGUS-COURIER STAFF
Many of Petaluma’s young adults now graduating from college are finding themselves in a precarious position. Between the economic downturn, a rapid increase in technology and more baby-boomers waiting longer to retire, students who graduate with a job lined up right after school are becoming the minority.
Petaluma native Tyler Hartrich was one of these students. Armed with a degree in city and regional planning from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, he entered the workforce in 2010, skilled enough to have multiple offers from several companies across the nation.
Hartrich — who attended the now-closed Bernard-Eldridge Elementary School and the former Kenilworth Junior High before graduating from Casa Grande High School in 2004 — eventually accepted a creative specialist marketing position in his home town at Enphase, a local solar energy firm.
“I had applications out across the world and a few offers, but it wasn’t until the interview that I discovered how great the potential and growth in this company and area is. So I settled here,” said Hartrich.
But for every Tyler Hartrich who has their pick of jobs after college, there are many others who don’t. Cynthia Murray, a Petaluma resident and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council, says that gone are the days of young people choosing careers strictly based on what they love to do.
“What we need to reinforce with our young people is the importance of going to jobs that require brains, because there are all kinds of jobs that technology is doing for us,” she said. “We also need to push our young people to careers that are going to remain viable for the long term future.”
Murray says that science, technology, engineering and math majors — or STEM degrees — have the most potential for growth in the employment sector. “That is where the jobs are going, but we’re seeing students not following them. It’s leading to a shortage of local talent.”
Kady Cooper, media relations and communications manager at Enphase, said that while her company was started by Petalumans and has an affinity for hiring local talent, the company recruits from all over the world to make sure it employs those best trained for the firm’s jobs. Enphase is just one of many local companies that works to recruit locally, but has been forced to look outside the area to fill its employment needs.
Murray attributes this lack of local workers to several trends her organization is witnessing right now, including less boys going to college and only 20 percent of females leaning towards STEM degrees.
“With scarce dollars and jobs, we need to make sure that we are pushing kids into careers that they are going to get employment from,” she added.
No matter what careers young people are exploring today, Murray said that job searching itself has become a new skill that nowadays requires more than just picking up the local job classified ads. Much like Hartrich, who scoured job boards and LinkedIn to find his position, Murray stressed that young adults must learn how to network and market themselves to find employment, especially from local businesses.
“One of the best things local young people can do to get connected is to build their network through tools like LinkedIn and Facebook,” Murray said. “The other thing they can do is internships. In my experience, the ones doing internships are the ones getting jobs.”
The North Bay Leadership Council, an employer-led public advocacy organization committed to making employment in the area sustainable and innovative, is just one local organization working to keep homegrown talent in the area.
Local colleges, for instance, offer programs to connect graduates to jobs. Santa Rosa Junior College’s Economic and Workforce Development office offers several ways for students to connect with local employers looking to hire.
Director Chuck Robbins said that his office uses the typical methods of student job boards and campus employment centers, but also tries to step outside the traditional modes of hiring to connect their students with more opportunities.
“We have a Work Experience academic course where students link their course studies with a specific workplace,” he said. “It’s designed to help the students improve their job skills and general work skills by having them do the jobs they are studying for.”
Programs involved in Work Experience include linking culinary students to local restaurants and paralegals to local law firms to have the students gain experience and college credit at the same time.
Robbins added that the two-year certification degree programs at the college all have advisory committees made up of industry people who volunteer to work with the college on course development and curriculum. These members are a great resource and often refer employers looking for qualified people to the college’s instructors, he said.
Murray agreed that a key to keeping talent local is connecting youth with SRJC’s programs and others like it.
“The best thing local young people can do is keep getting more skills, whether it’s a certificate program at the JC or a trade or additional learning. Continuing to pick up new skills is what they’re going to have to do forever to remain employable,” she said.