Building Up Our Youth: Local Program Creates Career Pathways in Building Trades for At-Risk Youth

n the summer of 2018, Asheville-based nonprofit Green Opportunities kicked-off the second of three planned cycles of its new YouthBuild training program, a tuition-free pre-apprenticeship program designed for out-of-school youth in Buncombe County.

Ten young adults ranging in age from 16 to 24 are enrolled in the latest YouthBuild training cycle; 80 percent of the participants are teenagers, and 40 percent are women. About 90 percent are high-school dropouts hoping to earn their GED® while gaining meaningful skills and work experience in an in-demand field.

Green Opportunities (GO) was one of 77 programs nationwide to receive a YouthBuild grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in the fall of 2017. YouthBuild is a recognized pre-apprenticeship program that helps at-risk youth complete high school equivalency programs, earn industry-recognized certifications, and undertake training to build affordable housing for low-income or homeless individuals in their communities.

YouthBuild instructor Karen George helps student Anthony Bowers design and build a prototype donation box for GO’s community kitchen. Photo credit: GWEN HILL PHOTO

“The YouthBuild program at GO is a unique opportunity for young people,” says Karen George, who has served as the YouthBuild program instructor since January 2018 and also runs a natural building company. “It’s really more like ‘Life Build.’”

GO’s YouthBuild participants study the Home Builders Institute Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training (HBI-PACT) curriculum, learning construction and leadership skills while studying for their GED® or High School Equivalency Diploma. Students earn a modest weekly living stipend while learning a curriculum that encompasses safety and first-aid, construction math, general tool knowledge, employability, building, carpentry, and weatherization. Students receive personalized support services as needed, including counseling and financial coaching, from an on-staff case manager, as well as assistance securing employment from GO’s job developer.

The full-time program lasts for six to nine months, allowing participants to complete the HBI coursework at their own pace.

“I have watched students go from using a nail gun for the first time to being a leader on our construction projects,” George said. “Through the YouthBuild program, the sky is truly the limit for our students.”

On-the-job training and project-based experience are key components of the YouthBuild training model. GO’s current YouthBuild cohort will cut their teeth in construction by completing the Southside Arts Pavilion project started by GO’s first cycle, as well as construct three single-family, affordable homes in Asheville’s Southside neighborhood in partnership with the Asheville Housing Authority. Deltec Homes is partnering on the construction of those houses, with building expected to begin in the summer of 2018.

GO launched the first of three planned YouthBuild training cycles in November 2017. Members of GO’s first YouthBuild class initially honed their framing and carpentry skills by building a chicken coop in GO’s on-site construction workshop, before breaking ground on a covered outdoor arts pavilion in the Southside Community Garden. As the home-building experience is a key component of the YouthBuild program model, George also arranged for her first class to participate in a Habitat for Humanity build in Arden. She plans to continue incorporating service-learning with Habitat into the curriculum for the second YouthBuild cohort.

The students benefit from these collaborations, receiving an education in green building through their exposure to the principles being applied in the real world, such as those demonstrated by Deltec’s sustainable construction methods and Habitat’s certification of Green Built Homes.

YouthBuild students Atticus Monfredi (left) and Erik Whitesides practice clamping and gluing hardwoods to create cutting boards for GO’s culinary training program graduates. GWEN HILL PHOTO

Participating in on-the-job training opportunities, including building the garden pavilion and securing a paid welding apprenticeship, were highlights of the program for Eddie Green, who earned his HBI Pre-Apprenticeship certificate in early May.

“It’s been a good experience, something I’d like to tell other folks to come and try,” Green said. “They introduced me to new people that I never knew.”

While Green already held a high school diploma when he entered YouthBuild last fall, the program staff helped him improve his math skills and successfully navigate new experiences, such as opening a bank account and networking with potential employers.

“If I didn’t go through this program, I’d be in the same predicament as before, still looking for a job,” Green said. “This program helped me do a lot of things that I never thought I could do.”

GO’s YouthBuild program has yielded real results for participants of its first cohort. To date, thirteen students have received their OSHA 10-Hour Construction safety cards, five earned a CPR/first-aid certification, four completed the HBI Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training in carpentry, and two earned their High-School Equivalency Diplomas. Three students also secured entry-level jobs in the construction industry: one as a carpenter, another as a metalworker, and a third as a mason.

A 2014 graduate of GO’s former Built Environment training program, YouthBuild Program Coordinator Eric Howell is well aware of how a training program like YouthBuild can help students change course and thrive. 

“GO saved me from going down a path that I didn’t want to go down,” Howell said. “I love my job at GO. I’m able to help out others who are heading down a path that is unhealthy for them.”

To learn more about GO’s YouthBuild program, visit or contact Eric Howell at

Gwen Hill is the communications manager at Green Opportunities (GO), where she was the 2015/16 Tzedek Social Justice Fellow. Before moving to Asheville, she spent seven years working in the nonprofit sector in New York City with a focus on workforce development. She holds degrees from Florida State University and Hunter College.

You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 40-41 of the 2018-2019 edition of the directory.