Building Futures program preps young adults to join workforce

The six months that Building Futures students spend gleaning carpentry skills in the educational program gives them a chance to build their confidence and their work experience as they begin to rebuild their lives.

The carpentry program, led by Waukesha-Ozaukee-Washington Workforce Development Inc., trains young adults ages 18-24 who have not completed high school and who face significant employment barriers, such as homelessness, disabilities and lack of transportation.

While students learn how to essentially build a house from the ground up, they also gain critical leadership and employability skills that ultimately prepare them “to be better people to go out to the community and be part of the workforce,” said Doniesha Peterson, YouthBuild case manager at WOW Workforce Development.

The Building Futures program, free for students, is largely based on an alternative education program known as YouthBuild that was developed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. Funding for WOW Workforce Development’s version comes from a federal YouthBuild grant, with supplementary support provided by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

The workforce development board’s first federal grant of $1.1 million enabled programming to kick off in 2009 and run for three years. A second grant was awarded in 2012 to extend programming through 2015.

Funding for the second round of programming, contributed by multiple sources, also totaled close to $1.1 million.

Throughout the course of the Building Futures program, which aims to serve 18 students per six-month cohort, participants spend three hours every weekday in courses at Waukesha County Technical College, a key partner. Those classes give them an opportunity to pursue their high school equivalency diplomas as well as develop leadership skills, strengthen job readiness skills, and explore career and post-secondary education possibilities.

Students also devote eight hours a week, four hours on each of two weekdays, to working for Habitat for Humanity of Waukesha County, another key partner. Through their hands-on experience building houses and their classroom time, they also secure a host of certificates including a carpentry certificate and a certificate signifying their completion of the program.    

Those certifications give them a foundation of credentials that open them up to more meaningful career and education ventures, according to program coordinators.

About half of Building Futures students seek work following the program and half look to go on to higher education pathways, with some students pursuing both at once. Through the Building Futures program, students are connected with employers and with additional training options. Following their six months of class time and fieldwork, which is capped by a graduation ceremony, students receive one year of follow up support. Throughout that year, Peterson helps them in any capacity necessary to ensure their success. Many program participants find employment in construction, manufacturing and customer service or tap into supplementary training in construction, welding and nursing.  

Benefits participants reap from the program are “life-changing,” according to Peterson. One student recently told her that he succeeded in an interview he never thought he would, thanks to his takeaways from the program. Another student revealed to Peterson that she had never been able to read a whole book prior to enrolling in the program.  

Beyond touching individual students, Building Futures also impacts the broader community. The program has been shown to reduce the risk of recidivism for some of its previous participants and back them with the support needed to make positive life choices, according to Laura Catherman, vice president at the WOW Workforce Development Board.

“This program provides a great benefit to the community by giving at-risk youth the opportunity to…gain self-sustaining employment,” Catherman said.

The future of Building Futures remains unclear, but WOW Workforce Development Inc. is hopeful that it will continue beyond 2015 as it waits for the federal government to release its next round of funding opportunities.

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