Klamath Tribal member and Eagle Ridge School instructor inspires next generation of construction workers

Klamath Tribal member Dominic Herrera has been running construction crews off and on for about 15 years. This past September, he inherited the position of Career and Technical Education (CTE) Construction Instructor at Eagle Ridge High School in Klamath Falls, where he has been instructing and inspiring students to pursue their interests. In the process, Herrera feels confident that he has found his calling, forfeiting more lucrative jobs in favor of inspiring the next generation of America’s construction workforce.

The program Herrera runs provides students with the opportunity to acquire credit hours to put towards Klamath Community College’s apprenticeship, among other institutions. “We’re a pre-apprenticeship program for KCC’s apprenticeship program,” Herrera said, “but part of their credit hours is on-site work.”

For a majority of their senior years, the students are to be on job sites working in order to get their foot in the door to companies and future opportunities. Herrera coordinates with several construction companies, three of which are Modoc Contracting, Bogatay Construction, and Diversified.

Contractors will provide options regarding open positions depending on a student’s interests, abilities, and preferences. The work varies from general labor to more advanced tasks, such as framing concrete drywall tile and just about any other aspect of the job a student can imagine.

One particular student is working with Diversified Contractors, Inc. on the new building currently being constructed on the west side of Eagle Ridge High School’s main campus. The new building will house Herrera’s classroom and workshop.

Students’ prospects of working for a contractor and getting paid – certainly an added perk for a high school teenager – are dependent on whether students are on course to attain all their necessary credits to graduate high school. “If they’re good on their credit hours, they can work all day,” Herrera said, citing the importance of students completing their core studies. “If not, then they’re encouraged to work at least a couple of hours. They’ve got to graduate. My class is an elective, bottom line. So, as long as they’re graduating, they’re doing all right. They can work as much as they want.”

Herrera’s students receive accreditation through the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER), which is recognized worldwide and by the construction industry as “the training, assessment, and certification and career development standard for the construction and maintenance craft professional.” Herrera’s funding for the CTE program comes through the Southern Oregon Education Service District (SOESD).

Upon completion of the program, students receive upwards of $2,000 worth of battery-operated hand tools and the option to continue with KCC’s apprenticeship program—the latter is covered by grant funding, so there is no charge to the student.

Herrera dishes his students a lot of tough love. He was formerly employed as a drug and alcohol counselor. With a master’s in forensic psychology and a degree in human services and chemical dependency, Herrera has a natural inclination for observing and understanding people.

“I gave them assignments, but their assignments were projects,” Herrera said, explaining his approach to engaging his students. “Everybody’s got to do one. If you don’t want to do one, I can understand, but you’re still going to have to do something by the end of the two weeks, or else you’re going to fail your two weeks. I told them, ‘You’re going to fail, or you’re going to pass, which means you either want to be here or you don’t. So, show me that you want to be here or you don’t have to be here definitely don’t have to be in this program. I guarantee there are other students that do want to come over here and learn some stuff.’ So, by the end of it, every one of them had some cool projects that they did, and they all fell in love with the tools.”

Herrera gives his students options for projects while also encouraging them to find their own. He cited one young man’s enthusiasm for constructing a weight bench with an attached weight rack made out of two-by-fours as especially impressive.

Students are not limited to individual projects. While students are given the opportunity to develop their individual skills, whether it be building a weight bench or rough-cut lumber furniture, they can also engage in cooperative projects. One such project was a two-story A-frame clubhouse, gifted to a staff member’s grandchild after its completion. The project also proved to be a good opportunity for Herrera to teach the students wiring: “And we put lights in there,” he said. “I showed them the basics of wiring and how to wire a switch.”

In an ever-changing world, where necessary skills in seemingly any industry ebb and flow, Herrera is intent on making sure his students understand potential fluctuations in the construction industry. In regards to 3D-printed homes, Herrera said his students were initially dismissive of the idea gaining traction in Klamath Falls. “I told them, ‘Well, maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.’ Regardless, the world doesn’t revolve around the Klamath Basin.”

Tiny homes, in particular, have long been of interest to Herrera’s. With a glaring housing shortage throughout Klamath County, Herrera is doing his part to correct course by encouraging his students to initiate change.

“We just put it in for a grant for some tiny homes,” he explained. “So, we’ve got approval from SOESD and Oregon Housing Authority to build as many as many tiny homes as we can commit to. They’re going to be 12-foot by 16-foot cottages, and we’re going to be building sheds for those cottages. We’ll be producing them here in the classroom.”

And the importance of Herrera’s job is not lost on him: “Oh, it means the world to me,” he said, smiling.