YouthBuild forges opportunities for young adults in Flint

Young adults today are feeling the effects of seismic shifts in the U.S. labor market.

They need more education and technical skills to compete in an information-based economy even as the availability of entry-level jobs drifts downward.

When two jobs out of every three require post-secondary education, those without the requisite education or skills are left far behind in the competitive sprint to secure living-wage careers.

“The bottom line is that today the price of entry into the workforce is higher than it ever has been,” said Daryl Wright, vice president for career development with YouthBuild USA, based near Boston.

“The requirements to gain employment at economically sustainable wages have increased even as the opportunities to gain new skills have decreased. This is particularly true for low-income young adults.”

YouthBuild USA, which has received more than $9 million in Charles Stewart Mott Foundation support since 1991, is dedicated to helping unemployed young people attain the education and skills training necessary to gain traction in the workforce.

At the same time, its model program — now used in more than 270 locations nationwide — helps improve communities as the young people work with local agencies to rehabilitate and rebuild affordable housing.

Metro Community Development introduced this nationally successful model to Flint in 2009 when it received a three-year, $1.87 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. YouthBuild USA provides training and assistance to all department-funded sites.

Mott supports the Flint replication through general purposes grants to Metro Community Development, reflecting a cross-programmatic approach of the Foundation’s Flint Area and Pathways Out of Poverty teams.

A group of students work on a mock building in a classroom setting.
Gaining experience in the construction trades helps Metro Flint YouthBuild participants grow their self-confidence and leadership abilities. Photo: Sarah Razak, Metro Community Development

The Metro Flint YouthBuild program, set to begin its second year this month, addresses many of the issues endemic to urban areas long in decline: education and employment hurdles, substandard housing, crime prevention, and leadership development.

Metro leaders hope to see 60 participants finish the program in the next 12 months, double the 30 participants — eight women and 22 men — who completed the first year in August.

The YouthBuild model allows low-income young people ages 16 through 24 to complete their high school education by earning a General Educational Development (GED) certificate or a high school diploma, while receiving hands-on experience and training in the construction trades.

Participants receive a small weekly stipend and are paid for their work with local nonprofit groups, by helping rehabilitate affordable housing through rebuilding, weatherization and lead abatement. Students also perform monthly community service, such as helping out at the local food bank.

Nationally, 30% of YouthBuild participants continue in the construction industry, while most others pursue different career paths.

Supporters of the model say that succeeding in the YouthBuild construction jobs helps young people learn discipline, develop a capacity for adopting leadership roles and realize their potential in whatever field they choose.

That taste of success is especially important as community colleges increasingly play an ever larger role in helping train workers for the new economy.

“The construction business is just really leverage to help them understand they can move forward and learn a skill and do college-level work,” said Robert Matthews, executive dean for career development and workforce training at Mott Community College in Flint.

A group of young people in matching blue t-shirts sit in a classroom.
The YouthBuild model emphasizes education and helps participants earn their high school diploma or GED certificate. Photo: Gerry Leslie, Metro Community Development

Mark Evans, Metro’s director of programs, agrees.

“What I’m hoping this program is doing is putting people back on the right track of leading a productive life for themselves,” he said.

The labor market has changed radically over the past six decades, with 20% of jobs considered skilled in 1950, compared with 85% of jobs in 2005.

“So it does require us to invest in more workforce programs and programs like YouthBuild,” Wright said.

He said YouthBuild can be distinguished from other workforce development programs because it takes a holistic approach, with local partners working together to provide key program components.

“What’s surprising is the seamlessness in which we as partners operate,” Evans said. “That’s really the jewel of this program.”

Among almost a dozen local partners, the two major ones are MCC and the Genesee-Shiawassee Michigan Works Career Alliance, a state-funded agency devoted to workforce development.

Participants earn six college credits from MCC for building and construction, which are transferrable to four-year universities to be used toward any degree.

Metro YouthBuild is housed at the Broome Center downtown. The facility is operated by Career Alliance, which provides participants with support and referral services, and is an enthusiastic partner in the local program.

“It shows that you can take people from different walks of life, and they become productive citizens if they get the respect and training they deserve,” said Craig Coney, vice president of Career Alliance.

The challenges participants bring to YouthBuild are many, including backgrounds rooted in poverty, homelessness, substance use, lack of schooling and involvement in the criminal justice system.

As a result, there were some first-year struggles.

“We maintain some strong disciplinary methods,” said Ravi Yalamanchi, Metro’s CEO. “They responded to that.”

Some first-year participants started well below the eighth-grade level. In the second year, only those who test at an eighth-grade level or higher will be admitted, while those who test below will be referred to adult education classes.

Meanwhile, program staff will track the first class of 30 for another year, monitoring their academic and job experiences as they continue their journeys.

“It’s a fresh start for them,” Evans said, “and that’s how they all looked at it.”