Meet Gustavo Olvera: Giving Back as FIELD’s Director of Workforce Development

Workforce Development Director talks about his job training program designed to give young adults a leg up

As a police officer, Gustavo Olvera spent 20 years trying to put people behind bars. Now he does what he can to keep them out of prison. Once he retired from law enforcement in 2018, Olvera was searching for fulfilling work which would allow him to give back to his community. And he found it.

 For the last three-and-a-half years he has been the Director of the Epic Workforce Program for Farmworkers Institute of Education & Leadership Development (FIELD), which provides education, job training, and employment for underserved young adults.  When Olvera took over in 2019, there were only six people in the program. Since then, Olvera and his staff of nearly 50 teachers, social workers, and administrators have guided over 100 people through this unique program.

The fact that FIELD was founded by activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez brings Olvera full circle. His parents were both farmworkers and he grew up in a farm labor camp, sometimes working in the fields as a child with his parents. Olvera recently spoke to us about both the rewards and challenges of his job and what motivates him to help young adults find their calling.

What does the job as Director of the Epic Workforce Program entail?

Gustavo Olvera: I oversee the Cesar Chavez Environmental Corps, the Career Technical Education program (CTE), and our social business enterprises. We work in conjunction with the high school. People come into our programs and enroll into our Epic High School so that they can work towards getting their high school diploma. Those that already have a high school diploma join the CTE so they get job and business skills.

We have eight different pathways they can take: Construction, Business, Recycling, Natural Resources, Agriculture, Early Childhood Education, Solar, and  Fire. The pathways are designed so that they go to class twice a week, an hour-and-a-half day. And then they do six hours of what’s considered lab work where they will work out in the field. They can find a person or a company that will allow them to go in and do an internship. However, we prefer to do it here because so many of our employees have great real-world experiences they can share. For instance, our Fire manager is a retired federal Bureau of Labor Management firefighter. Everything he teaches is the same type of work that they do in the actual job — minus the fire, obviously!

Who are your Corps members and how long is the program?

Primarily we focus on 18- to 26-year-olds who come from all walks of life.  A few are college students, and after a few months they figure out what they want to do and they phase out. But the majority of our students have led very difficult lives. It takes longer for them to find their path and they may stay in the program for up to three years.

Many of our students come in pretty rough around the edges. Some are transients. They don’t have a home or are in foster care. Some have food insecurities. So we do our best to try not to push them through too quick.

Our program is designed for a year, but when you’re dealing with some of the challenges that these Corps members have encountered, it’s impossible in a year to give them all the skills they need. 

Most have never been given an opportunity to be mentored where they’ve been given direction. Maybe they have been in jail or kicked out of school because of behavioral issues. It’s not necessarily their fault, but may be due to mental issues that haven’t yet been diagnosed. We’ve even had some students join us to gain experience, and after a short time we see they have the leadership skills needed to help us develop the program and we hire them as staff.

You mentioned you have some Corps members who come in as transients. How do you handle housing for them?

We’re working on that right now. We have a 12-acre facility here in Bakersfield and we are planning to remodel one of the wings that we have in one of our main buildings to make it transitional housing. There will be dormitories for those Corps members who are transient or facing challenges at home, like parents or people they live with who may be drug addicts. That way they can focus on education, learning the job, and just being here on time.

Tell me about some of your success stories.

About a year ago we had a young African American man from San Diego who always wanted to become a firefighter, but knowing what he would have to do to get there, he never felt it was attainable because of how he grew up. He lacked the confidence. He heard about our program through a friend and came up and joined our fire program. He went through the classes, passed the written tests, and a physical test.

So when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) came out looking for firefighters he was one of six Corps members selected.  He ended up getting hired as a seasonal firefighter. I just got word that he was hired back in San Diego as a full-time firefighter this year.

He said to us “If it wouldn’t have been for FIELD, I would have never known that I would’ve been able to do this, because nobody had ever provided that direction.” And today, all six of those Corps members have jobs. The foundation was laid. We built them up and gave them the confidence and skills, and it was successful for them.

Another Corps member was in an abusive relationship and couldn’t get out of it. She would leave, come back, leave, come back. Finally we gave her an opportunity for full-time employment, and she was able to move herself out of the relationship. She is now doing well – she has her own apartment and is raising her child alone.

So, it’s all over the spectrum. When you talk to the Corps members here and hear their stories,  it’s amazing how many things that a lot of us take for granted are a big deal for them. And I think we serve a huge purpose when it comes to that.

You mentioned the Bureau of Land Management. Explain how that relationship works.

We have different sponsors that we work with: Caltrans, BLM, State Parks and more.

For instance, Caltrans can’t fill positions fast enough around the state because people are retiring. So they’ll work with us to hire young adults who are out of work andhelp get them back into the workforce. We’ve been working with them now for about a year.

With the Bureau of Land Management, we get grants to do work for them throughout the state. Our Corps members will go out and they’ll do trail building, invasive species removal, and fire fuels reduction work. Right now we have a contract with California State Parks, and every week a crew of between 8-12 Corps members go out to the Big Basin area, which is up north of Santa Cruz, and they’ll camp there for eight days

There a lot of damage from a big fire there a few years ago. They’re rebuilding the trails and reconstructing bridges. They’re removing dead trees. A lot of these Corps members enjoy that type of work. So they start looking for avenues to find careers in those areas.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Well, it depends on the day. (laughs) I think the hardest part is finding that one solution doesn’t fit all. And each Corps member that comes through our program is unique in their own way, so we need to figure out what’s going to help them individually to be successful. Finding those wraparound services that fit everyone’s needs is very challenging — from having a transient Corps member who doesn’t have a place to live to somebody who doesn’t have transportation to get to a job to somebody who doesn’t have enough food to eat.

Another example is a lot of our core members have children, and can’t afford daycare. So we had to open childcare centers in every location we’re at. If they’re Epic students, Corps members, or work for us they can bring their kids and it’s all free.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Just hearing about all the milestones that the Corps members achieve. Sometimes you get frustrated because it’s hard work. But then you go talk to them and they tell you these stories, or they share with you something good that happened. And they feel like they accomplished something big. It brings you back. There’s a reason why I am here. It grounds me and helps me continue to do what I do, because I see that it’s impacting them.

What’s your goal for the program?

Right now I’m focusing on creating one of the final pieces to help bring the organization full circle — the social business piece. The idea is for those students who want to go into business, to help develop cooperatives where they run and own their own business. We’re just getting established, but I think in the next couple of years we’ll get there. Then we’ll see where it takes us.