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Cassandra Williams, CEO, A-Tech Consulting

Cassandra Williams, CEO, A-Tech Consulting

Real estate firms, listen up: there’s a new lead in town to help with your labor shortage problem.

With seed funding from the family of one of OC’s real estate legends, the late Gen. William Lyon, as well as Frank Suryan Jr., partner in Lyon Living, nonprofit Orangewood Foundation is rolling out a new program that pairs disadvantaged young adults in apprenticeship opportunities with local construction firms and other companies.

The program, called the General William Lyon Workforce Academy, will teach trade skills to young adults looking for a career path, and provide a new source of dedicated employees for companies looking to give back to the community.

“This program is a great way to honor my dad, who was always looking for ways to support foster youths and help them break out of the cycle,” said Bill H. Lyon, son of the General, who was pivotal in establishing the first Orangewood facility in 1980.

Gen. Lyon, founder of Newport Beach’s William Lyon Homes, died in May 2020, at the age of 97.

Missing Middle

Orangewood Foundation is a nonprofit that provides services to teens and young adults in Orange County. Long a focus for the Lyon family’s philanthropic efforts, its Santa Ana facility opened in 1985, and has served tens of thousands of youth since.

“Orangewood is always looking to address the needs of our youth and develop sustainable programs in their path to adulthood,” said Orangewood Chief Executive Officer Chris Simonsen.

The foundation does this by creating life skills and education programs for about 1,500 teens and yound adults per year, through programs such as the Samueli Academy, a free public charter high school established by Henry and Susan Samueli, Orangewood Foundation and Sandi Jackson in 2013.

Historically, Orangewood’s programs have helped two main cohorts: kids on the college track, or those struggling with homelessness and in need of hourly jobs to get back on their feet.

“We noticed an underrepresented group of young individuals that are doing okay, but an hourly job won’t sustain them long term, and they’re not college-bound either,” Simonsen said.

Lyon Living Involvement

Orangewood Chief Program Officer, Shauntina Sorrells, worked with a graduate student at California State University, Long Beach to compile research for a new workforce development program that could offer vocational training for this middle group.  

They came up with an 80-page framework for the program that drew inspiration from other successful area programs, such as Casa Teresa’s internship platform for at-risk mothers.

“We came up with a great blueprint for the program, but we didn’t have any funding sources at the time,” Simonsen said.

Frequent Orangewood partner and Lyon Living co-founder, Frank Suryan, was aware of this need, and approached the Lyon family with the concept.  

In 1989, Suryan partnered with Gen. Lyon to form a multifamily real estate company that’s now known as Lyon Living; it counts a portfolio valued in the billions of dollars.

Bill H. Lyon previously served as CEO and executive chairman of William Lyon Homes, which sold last year to Scottsdale’s Taylor Morrison Home Corp. (NYSE: TMHC); he’s now on the nearly $4.5 billion-valued company’s board.

$1M Seed Funding

It wasn’t the first time the Lyon family helped to establish a new Orangewood program.

Gen. Lyon and his wife, Willa Dean, began their association with the nonprofit in the 1970s, when they donated a decorated Christmas tree to the then Albert Sitton Home, which was renamed Orangewood when it was later expanded into a campus in Orange for battered and abused children.

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Lyon helped establish the new center by putting together a board of 14 people in 1980 to fund the private donation need of $8.5 million for the center that opened in 1985.

Suryan and the Lyon family together donated $1 million in total to fund the start of the General William Lyon Workforce Academy, which now has two full-time staff members.

Early Success 

The program is currently in a soft launch; two individuals have been paired with two Orange County companies: A-Tech Consulting and Motive Energy.

Casandra Williams, CEO of Orange-based environmental consultancy A-Tech, signed on as an early partner largely due to a personal interest in the program.

“I was in and out of foster care myself,” Williams said. “I was married young and had children young, so I understand how hard it can be to get on your feet financially and establish a career.”

The program has been a resounding “win-win,” said Williams—after just two months A-Tech promoted the apprentice to work on a project as a full-time employee.

“We’ve helped to train her, but she has put in the drive and hard work to handle the rest on her own,” Williams said.

“The program is a very synergistic idea that supports youth in the community but also provides companies with opportunities to feel like a tribe,” she said. “I’ve noticed my team really buy into the program and come together to help out in a meaningful way.”

Construction Focus

Orangewood is scouting about eight to 10 youths for the first official class of the Lyon academy. Individuals are expected to be between 18 and 25 years old, and they don’t have to be existing Orangewood participants to sign on to the program.

“We are also working with the County of Orange’s social service department as well as other nonprofits in the area to see if they have referrals for participants,” Simonsen said.

These individuals will then shadow at several different companies before landing on the best fit for all involved.  

The program is currently seeking partners in local construction companies and will expand to other industries as the program progresses.

“Not only do we have fantastic existing partners in the construction industry, it’s also an industry that’s facing a significant need for skilled labor,” said Simonsen. “These are also solid trade jobs that can provide a livable wage.”

Frequent construction partners for Orangewood include Lennar, Lyon Living and Snyder Langston.

Call for Sponsors 

In addition to seeking company participants, Orangewood is looking for more financial partners to support the Workforce Academy.

It’s looking to build up an endowment fund between $4 million and $5 million to support the operations of the program, which includes staffing, youth supplies, training costs and incentives for youths as they progress through the program.

A Orangewood donor recently agreed to match donations up to half a million dollars.

“This program couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Bill H. Lyon.

“Between the need in the community for trade programs and the demand for skilled labor, this academy connects all the dots.”

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