By Randy Woods
Of all the demographics affected by the Great Recession, few have been as hard-hit as our youngest workers. While our statewide unemployment rate currently stands at 6.8 percent, the rate for the 16-to-24 demographic is more than double that rate, at 16.7 percent. For those young workers who also come from broken families or have criminal records, the outlook for employment is even bleaker.
For the past few years, however, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor has offered a lifeline to young job seekers who were about to fall through the cracks of the system. CalledYouthBuild, the program offers homeless and low-income people ages 16 to 24 job-training programs in the construction industry via a series of classes at South Seattle Community College (SSCC).
The program, administered by homeless-youth organization YouthCare, selects the most promising at-risk young people to work for six to 24 months building affordable housing while they study to earn their high school diplomas or GEDs. During the program, they attend SSCC classes to learn construction trade skills such as carpentry, roofing, demolition, plumbing and electrical systems. They also learn crucial interpersonal skills, such as working well with others, presenting themselves in a professional manner and sticking to a disciplined routine.
The effectiveness of the Seattle YouthBuild program is indisputable. In 2012, YouthBuild’s graduation rate was 94 percent, with 29 out of 31 enrollees completing the program. Every one of these workers was able to find employment or an apprenticeship within three months of graduation. According to YouthCare figures, YouthBuild has a return on investment of at least $10.80 for every dollar spent on the program.
But the outlook for the program is far from rosy. On July 2, YouthBuild held a roundtable forum at SSCC’s Georgetown campus to discuss the very real possibility of the program’s demise due to the federal sequestration actions earlier this year in Congress.
In June, the leaders of YouthBuild were told that the grant from the Labor Department would not be renewed for the rest of 2013. “Hence we find ourselves with a shortage of about $200,000 to $250,000 to keep the doors open until the next funding round is announced next June,” said Melinda A. Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare. “Without additional funds, the program can take no new young people after this group graduation and we will begin shutting down services in late October.”
During the roundtable event, the words from the dozen or so new YouthBuild graduates present were far more moving than any statistics:
- “I never thought I could actually do this. … Now, I feel like I can do anything. This program was able to open another side of me.”
- “I grew up with a lot of adversity. I came from a family that struggled with economic issues. I’m here because of programs like this. It helped protect me from going down the wrong path.”
- “I’ve been in and out of jail. … If someone gives me an opportunity, gives me another chance, I want to prove that I’m not some monster. I’ve got all these new skills which have changed my whole outlook on life.”
- “I can say this program saved my life. I wanted to do something different with my life. … I want to show my son around Seattle and say to him, ‘Hey I built that.’ If not for this program, I’d still be smoking weed and worrying about the cops.”
Giovengo says YouthCare will apply to the next federal grant cycle in December, but until then will be seeking alternative funding sources to keep YouthBuild going, including private donations and possible assistance from the city of Seattle, King County and the state.