From homeless to apprentice

Manuel Cortez works on location with RXR Plumbing, Inc.

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, Cortez was rehabilitating for three years 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,” Cortez said. “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 was a former director of the SDRM Men’s Center Program. Cortez’s family encouraged him to contact Torres and to enter SDRM’s 12-month residential program.

Addressing a problem together

San Diego County has the fourth most homeless residents in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2018, SDCE, which is in the San Diego Community College District and is California’s largest noncredit education institution, and SDRM launched a partnership 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.

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. But he 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 receive 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, whose employment status permitted a longer stay with the shelter, allowing him to save money and find stable housing.

Job ready

After completing his second plumbing certificate, SDCE plumbing instructor Rene Lopez hired him. Cortez now works as a plumber apprentice for RXR Plumbing, 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,” Cortez said. “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,” he said.

Cortez looks forward to advancing his career and becoming a journeyman plumber. Plumbing provides relatively high average pay, with the median annual wage for plumbers about $55,160 per year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Lucky Duck Foundation became the SDEC Foundation’s first major donor, awarding a $200,000 grant to support R2S PATHWAYS to serve more homeless adult students. The program 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.

About the Author

Allura Olympia Garis
is a public information assistant at San Diego Continuing Education, which is part of the San Diego Community College District in California.