YouthBuild students set to become tomorrow’s skilled tradespeople

Dissatisfied with overcrowded housing and lack of opportunity, many Indigenous youth look to Manitoba’s urban centres to make a new life. Their lack of experience and education combined with little or no support networks can often create unexpected challenges resulting in things not going well for them in the city.

In order to smooth the transition for many First Nations people coming here from their reserves, EAGLE Urban Transition Centre (EUTC) partnered with Just TV in 2013 to create a series of nine “Transitioning 101” videos.

Each covers a different topic including safety, culture, housing and transportation. Everything a First Nation newcomer needs to know when moving to Winnipeg is explained in one of the well-produced and upbeat videos narrated by local Indigenous community members including Wab Kinew and Michael Redhead Champagne.

They seem to suggest that with proper i.d. and a common-sense approach, moving here will be an easy transition but the busy resource centre is full of First Nations community members who are stuck in the “can’t get a job without a place to live” catch 22 which is ironic as many of them left their reserves due to a lack of adequate housing.

Finding housing isn’t the only hurdle they’ll face here. Oft quoted stats from a 2014 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives show the annual incomes of 75 percent of Indigenous migrants to Winnipeg remained below $10,000 for 15 months after arriving. Furthermore, they have almost double the poverty rate of the general population coupled with an unemployment rate three times as high.

And it gets worse. During the first ever Winnipeg Street Census conducted on Oct. 25, 2015, 84 percent of the homeless youth polled identified as Indigenous. While listening to their stories, surveyors learned that half had grown up in a First Nations community and half had moved to Winnipeg in the last year.

Most of them fell under the NEET acronym meaning not currently in education, employment or training which in Canada comprises youth between ages 15 and 29.

For some time now, sociologists, business people and heads of educational institutes in Manitoba have been perturbed and alarmed by the low numbers of Aboriginal youth who pursue higher education. Half of the province’s Indigenous population is under 21 but they’re underrepresented in our universities, colleges and trade schools and overrepresented in our corrections systems. Getting a higher education is the only way they will be able to break out of the cycle of poverty that has been endemic on reserves and in the inner city.

While the number of Indigenous youth without education, training and employment grows, studies show Manitoba will need 12,000 tradespeople to fill jobs over the next 10 years.

The Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology (MITT) has implemented the International YouthBuild model to ready marginalized Indigenous youth for some of these coveted positions.

This unique program at the Social Enterprise Centre campus (765 Main Street) accepts youth at the education level they’re at. It strives to ensure no one is left behind and a student advisor aids those who are struggling or at risk of homelessness.

Participants may lose their apartments in the middle of term while others come straight from their reserves to Winnipeg without a place to stay. Single moms in the class sometimes have to juggle school, daycare and sick kids which can be difficult.

For all these reasons and more, in addition to the student advisor, an Elder is always available. Many participants have also faced big challenges in their lives ranging from addictions to a criminal record to gang involvement.

The innovative training model gives participants accreditations they can build on and transfer elsewhere. Some of the young participants in the construction-focused non-profit program are earning their high school diploma while learning carpentry skills through the trades exploration curriculum.

It’s not just book learning. The hands on experience gives them new, employable skills that they refine while designing and building furniture they really need at home. This is a big help to the low income participants.

YouthBuild participants from last year, just before their graduation.

Those with their high school diploma take the accredited Carpentry Level 1 Apprenticeship Manitoba curriculum. The credentials they earn are impressive: Apprenticeship Manitoba Level One Carpentry accreditation, a certificate for the post-secondary courses they complete at MITT, and 900 of the 1800 hours needed to become a Certified Level One Carpenter.

This past June, 17 students proudly graduated with this solid foundation and have taken a big step towards becoming a Certified Level One Carpenter.

Students who’ve completed their grade 12 courses while enrolled in the Trades Exploration program can return in the fall to take the more advanced curriculum.

YouthBuild Thompson which has been run by the local Boys and Girls Club for the last 15 years has different challenges and approaches. Many transient Indigenous youth from remote northern communities end up in the bigger city of Thompson. Usually their home reserves have limited access to education beyond grade eight, limited healthcare and inadequate housing.

Thompson seems to offer more opportunity but when they get there, they struggle. With only a grade eight education they don’t get any of the few jobs available and they’re away from friends and family. The program helps them rebuild their lives through the built-in social supports while enabling them to get their GED high school equivalency.

YouthBuild isn’t just another pie-in-the-sky effort. Founded by Dorothy Stoneman, a New York City teacher, the YouthBuild model started in 1978 and now spans a global network of 22 countries.

New York was the site of the first YouthBuild project.

YouthBuild programming has benefited from extensive studies and varies from country to country depending on the relative challenges for youth in finding employment, education and opportunities. Its efficacy has been proven over and over again and organizations worldwide consider it the best model to help their disenfranchised youth.

The program started in East Harlem when Stoneman and her students wanted to gut and redo a derelict building to house some of their city’s many homeless. They had their pick of hundreds of derelict and dilapidated buildings in their crime ridden East Harlem, New York neighbourhood and chose to renovate a 10-unit tenement.

Stoneman had long been disillusioned by the legions of disadvantaged and poor youth who had basically been “kicked to the curb” and felt they needed an avenue to become the valued community members she believed they were.

She facilitated the project and worked with the group over the two years it took to complete the renovation. Her marginalized and disengaged students thrived on the challenges and afterwards joined her in becoming outspoken advocates for other neglected youth.

And that was the birth of YouthBuild which has grown from one program in 1978 to 260 programs across the U.S. today. So far, 26,000 houses have been renovated in communities across the U.S. This fosters community pride and gives the participants a sense of accomplishment and a way to give back to their communities.

In Canada, “YouthBuild” isn’t a household name and struggles to find funding for the service part of the program. However, there is hope for change in the near future. A large building supply company and a building material supply chain have been approached and asked to consider partnership opportunities with YouthBuild International to support more programs in Canada.

It’s a far cry from the U.S. programs that have a long list of well established major funders on board. Companies like the American Express Foundation, AT&T, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation…to name just some of the ones starting with the letter “A”.

Manitoba is already home to the only YouthBuild programs in the country and could become become a flagship province for the program.

Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) in Nelson House, MB is preparing to start a program in their community that would be housed in an accredited, community based post-secondary training facility on the reserve.

Atoskiwin Training and Employment Centre (ATEC) was originally built to train hydroelectric workers for the Wuskwatim hydroelectric partnership between Manitoba Hydro and NCN. The facility is being expanded with a 16,000 square foot training facility equipped with solar panels to teach participants how to design, install, operate and maintain solar panels and related equipment.

Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) in Nelson House (upper left side of map) is approximately 850 km northwest of Winnipeg.

The space inside will be used to teach home building including SIP panel housing which is presently being used to build a new fourplex in the community.

NCN has come up with an ingenious solution to keep their youth home while addressing their overcrowded, rundown and mold ridden housing that typifies the state of housing on many of Canada’s First Nations. The YouthBuild participants will gain valuable green building skills and the reserve will get much needed housing to replace the substandard overcrowded units.

Northern Manitoba needs more skilled tradespeople but has trouble retaining them due in part to a lack of housing. By developing skilled youth in the north, YouthBuild ATEC in Nelson House is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Other First Nations are taking notice of the progressive projects in Nelson House. With 175 isolated and remote First Nations who are burdened with substandard housing and polluting diesel energy generation, could YouthBuild work in these communities which also need new housing, face high energy costs and also have large numbers of unemployed, idle youth?

To explore those possibilities, the Assembly of First Nations is leading a delegation of First Nation Chiefs on a fact finding mission to visit YouthBuild programs in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Cambridge, Massachusetts in November. They will also meet with YouthBuild International to explore the principles and concepts required to start more programs in First Nation communities.

They hope the YouthBuild model can solve a lot of the problems on reserves today. The program’s unique combination of helping youth get their grade 12, develop their leadership skills, and provide them with carpentry skills seems to hold some of the answers to problems governments and communities have long struggled with.

In fact, YouthBuild programming could help Canadians address the seventh Call To Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 recommendations that call upon the federal government to develop a joint strategy with Aboriginal groups to eliminate educational and employment gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.  YouthBuild programs do just that and they do it very well.


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One response to “YouthBuild students set to become tomorrow’s skilled tradespeople”

  1. Donna Marion

    Excellent article, Anne! The YouthBuild program is worthy of recognition and I’m glad that its success will be replicated in rural and northern communities.

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