Manuel Cortez, 43, turned his life around when he became a certified plumber, a career path accomplished through free workforce training at San Diego Continuing Education (SDCE).
Prior to working in commercial buildings and private homes, three years ago, Cortez was rehabilitating at the San Diego Rescue Mission (SDRM) overcoming a drug and alcohol addiction.
“I threw away 20 years of my life going in and out of jail and hospitals. I was on the wrong path with the wrong people and made the wrong choices,” said Cortez. “My parents weren't happy, and my body couldn’t handle it anymore.”
Cortez tried many rehab centers, but it was not until his high school friend, Oscar Torres, gave him a helping hand. Torres served as the SDRM’s former Men’s Center Program Director. Cortez’ family encouraged him to reach out to Torres and to enter SDRM’s 12 Month Residential Program.
SDCE, California’s largest noncredit education institution, and the SDRM launched a partnership in 2018, to transition homeless adults into the workforce and out of poverty. The project helps students like Cortez get back on their feet through free job training for in-demand careers from welding and automotive, to office skills and healthcare.
This year, SDCE ranked among the top educational organizations in the San Diego-Imperial Counties Region in Strong Workforce Program (SWP) outcomes by investing funding to create “more and better” programs to help students become skilled workers and achieve upward economic mobility.
San Diego County had the fourth most homeless residents in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For six months, 12 residents from the mission completed a certificate program at SDCE’s Educational Cultural Complex, a hub for industry classrooms including a welding facility, an automotive garage, and an under-construction home for student plumbers.
Cortez chose to specialize in plumbing. In preparation for apprenticeships, he learned how to inspect, troubleshoot, and repair water systems.
Cortez was worried about returning to the classroom since graduating high school in 1990. “At first it was hard to study. I didn’t remember my education at all, and I had to get used to learning concepts again,” he said. “But little by little I started to ask questions, I was going to class early, then I would go back to the Rescue Mission and review my notes.”
To ensure academic completion, SDRM clients begin their workforce training with SDCE’s free College and Career Readiness classes to prepare for the rigorous curriculum ahead and are provided transportation to and from school. Many also receive support for textbook and class material fees.
“I was the first one out of my cohort to get hired. Everybody at the Rescue Mission was so excited for me,” said Cortez. His employment status permitted a longer stay with the shelter, allowing him to save money and find stable housing.
After completing his second plumbing certificate, SDCE’s plumbing instructor, Rene Lopez hired him. Cortez is now working as a Plumbers Apprentice for RXR Plumbing, Inc installing, and repairing piping fixtures and systems, and managing the company’s service and repair van.
“Rene has been the greatest person and opened the doors for me in so many ways. He has all of the patience in the world,” said Cortez. “When bringing me on the job Rene would ask me “do you remember this tool we used in class?” and that is how I would hands-on learn this industry.” Cortez looks forward to advancing his career and becoming a Journeyman Plumber.
Plumbing provides relatively high average pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for plumbers was $55,160 per year in 2019.
The Lucky Duck Foundation became San Diego Continuing Education’s Foundation’s first major donor, awarding a $200,000 grant to support SDCE’s learning community, R2S PATHWAYS, to serve more homeless adult students. R2S PATHWAYS provides intensive and inclusive case management with direct support services for students to complete their education and career pathway at SDCE.
“The collaboration between SDCE and SDRM is incredibly unique for the city of San Diego. Men and women facing homelessness and housing insecurity can enroll at SDCE, complete their education, and have a real opportunity to earn living wages and to change their living situation permanently,” said SDCE President Carlos Osvaldo Cortez, Ph.D.