Sam Peebles first heard about YouthBuild from his parole officer.

His father had died when he was 11, his mother was heavily involved with drugs, and he’d just completed his second stay in juvenile detention.

“I saw my life as set in stone and that nothing was going to get better,” he says. “My plan at the time was to give up and go back to doing crimes, end up in prison for the rest of my life, or just die.”

Instead, Peebles completed the program and discovered a passion for construction and a pathway to a career in an industry that lacks skilled workers. He shared his story in a speech at the nonprofit’s 40th anniversary.

Neil Hunt didn’t hear Peebles’ speech, but he did meet young adults from similar backgrounds when he attended a YouthBuild event at Tacoma Goodwill several weeks ago. He came away impressed. 

“Every one of them was extremely passionate about what they were doing, grateful for a chance, and eager to learn,” says Hunt, the Senior Project Manager for Skanska, an international project management and construction group. “They had a lot of questions for me.”

Like companies across the country, Skanska has been affected by the labor shortage in construction. YouthBuild bridges a gap between youth who lack education and training and an industry in dire need of a skilled workforce. The program trains low-income young people to help build affordable housing and other community assets, such as community centers and schools.

Within the South Sound, YouthBuild has been operating for 12 years, but the model has existed for 40 years internationally. Nationally, YouthBuild USA has a network of 260 rural and urban programs in 44 states, including Thurston County YouthBuild and YouthBuild Tacoma, which operates in partnership with Tacoma Goodwill. YouthBuild International operates in 21 countries worldwide.

The program is needed now more than ever. A growing labor shortage has emerged as baby boomers retire, and millennials are not stepping in to replace them.

“There’s been a continued decline in both skilled and unskilled people joining the construction industry,” says Hunt. “There’s also been a drought of young people. We’re finally starting to see some of them join again.”

Meanwhile, an estimated 4.9 million young adults in America between ages 16 and 24 are neither employed nor in school, with as many as 3 million living in poverty who are not in education, employment, or training. For those who left high school without a diploma, YouthBuild is an opportunity to reclaim their educations, gain the skills they need for employment, and become leaders in their communities.

“There’s always been a need to help young people access skills that will translate to a living-wage job,” says Audra Laymon, YouthBuild Tacoma’s Program Manager.

The 30-week training is split between a focus on academics, including GED preparation, and hands-on experience in a construction lab. Participants work their way up to building single-family homes with Habitat for Humanity. Taking an experiential approach results in better outcomes for students and employers, says Dan Fey, senior vice president of workforce development.

“Everybody,” he says, “learns better by doing.”

Another key component is leadership development, including conflict resolution, problem-solving, and learning how to foster healthy relationships. Those skills will be effective no matter what industry graduates join.

“A lot of employers say the ‘soft skills’ are highly lacking in today’s workforce,” Fey notes. “YouthBuild teaches them how to work in teams and helps them develop confidence and self-esteem. One of the most powerful things about this program is that they learn how to be young adults.”

Participants engage in community service for organizations like food banks, the Tacoma Rescue Mission, and farms.

“We’ll ask them, ‘How do you want to help your community?’” says Laymon. “One of our cohorts recently adopted a street in the Hilltop neighborhood.”

YouthBuild team

Students and instructors share smiles at Youthbuild’s 40th anniversary celebration.

During the final weeks, the focus shifts toward logistical items, like making sure financial aid applications are complete for those interested in returning to school or nailing down articulation agreements for those who want to join a union.

“We want to make that transition smooth,” says Laymon.

YouthBuild is required by the Department of Labor to achieve a 75 percent placement rate for participants being enrolled in school, having a job or doing an apprenticeship, but their internal goal is higher, Laymon says.

“We’re aiming for 100 percent,” she says.

To better meet employers’ needs, the nonprofit solicits industry feedback. One recent result was new curriculum.

“We shifted to the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum in response to what we were hearing from unions in our area,” Laymon says. “It has a huge hands-on component that emphasizes math, blueprint reading, and conflict resolution and offers a foundation for a lot of different trades.”

Another cohort is starting in Tacoma in July, with 30 spots available, and an additional 20 spots are open at YouthBuild’s Seattle site.  In a new development, this group will learn how to build micro homes.

“We’re excited about it as a program,” says Laymon. “Our community partners are helping us identify where the needs are.”

Hunt believes the program can have a real impact on the industry with two cohorts per year of approximately 15 to 20 graduates.

“If all those individuals continue to pursue a career in construction, after five years we’d have around 200 people who are trained,” says Hunt. “A $100 million project takes an average of 50 workers, so this program would produce enough workforce to do two or three $100 million projects that otherwise wouldn’t be available. That benefits everybody.”

It has certainly benefitted Peebles. Wrapping up his speech at the 40th anniversary celebration, he told the crowd, “YouthBuild has shown me that my personal afflictions and my past are just that: the past. [This program] helps you focus on the future and shows you one that’s obtainable and sustainable.”