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Young Milwaukeeans Train For Careers in Construction, While Earning a GED

Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio
Kyara Rodriguez (right) and her sister Carina are participants in the YouthBuild program

Summer vacation is drawing to a close for thousands of Milwaukee students. But for some, learning has continued throughout the warm months. They’ve been taking part in YouthBuild program.

The program, run by MATCand Journey House, prepares people ages 16-24, who've dropped out of school for a career in the construction trades.

The building business is booming in Milwaukee. The Bucks arena project alone is expected to provide jobs to hundreds.

Dra'vonnBankhead hopes he gets one of them. The 20-year-old says he was mainly taking care of his grandmother, but now he’s enrolled in the YouthBuild program to get a background in construction.

"I dropped out in the 11th grade and I wasn't doing anything other than that at home, working odd jobs, helping people around my neighborhood, cutting grass and everything, and it wasn't something I wanted to be doing," he says.

Now Bankhead is preparing for his GED at the Journey House on Mondays and Fridays. It takes most of the YouthBuild students about a year to finish.

And for 15 weeks, participants spend Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at MATC, focusing on the building trades. In the morning, they're in the classroom, learning things such as OSHA regulations and the math skills carpenters need. In the afternoon, instructor Beverly Sroka takes the students into the shop for hands-on work.

"What they're learning now is...chisels, laying out angles, a handsaw, learning how to read a print, measure off of stuff so everything comes out exactly how it's supposed to be, and then the different types of lumber," Sroka says.

As the weeks progress, participants learn how to use power tools, then frame a house.

"So they get to build four walls, openings for windows and doors so you can header it out, then we do some insulation work, drywall," Sroka says.

Finally the students go into the field, where they help build a Habitat for Humanity home. For some, like 20-year-old Anthony Beard, it’s the first thing they’ve ever made. Beard says now that he's in YouthBuild, he's trying to determine which building trade to pursue.

"I would like to do electrician or a plumber, or carpentry, anything that fits best for me," Beard says.

Seventeen-year-old Kyara Rodriguez also enjoys the work. She enrolled in YouthBuild mainly to get her GED, but says now, she's planning a career in construction.

"I originally wanted to do hair, so this is like a whole, new different thing," Rodriguez says.

MATC and Journey House began offering YouthBuild a year ago. Interim project manager Derick Cornelius says the U.S. Department of Labor oversees and funds the program. The money covers instruction, as well as transportation; some students come from the House of Correction each day, where they're serving sentences. The funding also pays for the tools of the trade that students use in class.

"They get to keep these tools for life, because we really want them to try to go into the trades, or at least something closely related to the trades," Cornelius says.

Cornelius says it's a significant investment. So applicants are screened to make sure they're a good fit.

"You know you get some students -- it sounds good up front, and they think, 'OK, this is something I can do.' But being able to continue to go through it day in and day out, and to come to class and to participate every day, there are some students who just can't handle that at the time," Cornelius says.

Cornelius says he doesn't yet know how successful YouthBuild might be, because most of the participants are still finishing their GEDs and haven’t yet entered the workforce. But he says YouthBuild is working with local construction companies to establish a pipeline to take students from the program to the job site.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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