Beyond Building: Training for the Green-Collar Economy

July 01, 2013
July/August 2013
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2013 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Ely Flores, a 2005 graduate of a YouthBuild program in Los Angeles, is a Grid Alternatives outreach manager and works with low-income families to install solar panels to reduce their home energy costs. At Greenbuild 2012 in San Francisco, Flores introduced a Master Series speaker, saying, “YouthBuild is creating a workforce of green leaders … who must be part of the boom of the green-collar economy.” Flores’s perspective is at the core of YouthBuild’s mission.

What Is YouthBuild?

Through a network of 273 local YouthBuild programs in rural and urban communities across the United States, thousands of previously out-of-school and out-of-work young people aged 16 to 24 work toward their GEDs or high school diplomas while learning job skills and preparing for postsecondary success. They achieve this by building affordable housing in their communities. Emphasis is placed on leadership development, community service, and creating a positive minicommunity of adults and youth committed to one another’s success.


Saint-Gobain Corporation Foundation and YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School kicked off their second project under the partnership in May 2013. The Green Team students who will work on this home in Philadelphia’s Nicetown neighborhood were introduced to the community in a pep rally-style groundbreaking event. (Saint-Gobain)


Ciera Russum, a member of the Advanced Construction team at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School and a 2012 program graduate, worked on the renovation of a home that had been abandoned for nearly 20 years, and is now LEED Platinum. (Saint-Gobain)

Hybrid Insulation System


Figure 1. A hybrid insulation system from CertainTeed was used to help YouthBuild Philadelphia achieve its energy efficiency, sustainability and affordability goals.



These before and after photos show that enhancing the home’s indoor environmental quality (IEQ) was important to the students. They used an environmentally-responsible damping material that, when used in conjunction with the Noiseproofing Sealant, dissipates up to 90% of noise and vibrations. (Saint-Gobain)

Since 1994, over 120,000 YouthBuild students have built over 22,000 units of affordable housing in their neighborhoods while working to fulfill their own educational goals. Fifty percent of enrollees complete the program and go on to postsecondary education or jobs. Sixty-seven percent of graduates retain their placements for at least one year.

Answering the Demand for a Greener Workforce

McGraw-Hill Construction predicts that by 2014, green-building jobs will account for nearly half of the design and construction workforce. In order to meet this demand, the YouthBuild USA Green Initiative provides YouthBuild programs with tools to introduce green careers to YouthBuild students and give them the opportunity to obtain industry-recognized credentials that attest to their knowledge and abilities.

The YouthBuild USA Green Initiative was established in 2005 by Eva Blake, Green Initiative director, and Chris Cato, Green Initiative project manager, in response to demand from local YouthBuild programs for technical assistance with green-building training.

With support from public and private funders, the initiative has organized at least 45 green-building trainings, local design charettes, webinars, and other educational events attended by over 750 YouthBuild construction trainers and students from over 200 YouthBuild programs.

YouthBuild USA has certified over 350 construction trainers from local YouthBuild programs to train and certify their students in credentials from the Home Builders Institute (HBI), the National Center for Construction Education and Research, BPI, and the AFL-CIO’s Building Trades Department. These credentials, in addition to their GEDs and high school diplomas, increase students’ job skills and employability after graduation.

Green-building training is now an essential part of the YouthBuild Program Design and Performance Standards handbook for YouthBuild USA affiliates. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor made green-building training a key component of its grants to local YouthBuild programs, and YouthBuild USA began tracking green-job placements. YouthBuild USA affiliates now report that nearly 10% of graduates are being placed in green jobs.

“As a result of preparing for a recent green-home renovation project,” says Jennifer Lawrence, director of career services at YouthBuild Schenectady, “we have become a BPI-accredited company, a Home Performance with Energy Star participating contractor, and an EMPOWER New York participating contractor.” YouthBuild Schenectady students have the opportunity to receive additional training as weatherization specialists and insulation installers. Graduates are employed in Northeast Parent & Child’s weatherization business, weatherizing low-income homes in the Schenectady area.

Becoming an Environmental Leader

Green building is valued by the YouthBuild network because it enables the students to serve their communities by providing low-income families with more-affordable and healthier housing. It represents the ultimate level of responsibility—making sure things go right for families, communities, and the world, which is the epitome of YouthBuild leadership development.

Developing green skills can help YouthBuild graduates to land a great job, but more importantly, they become environmental leaders, regardless of their career choice. James Hooten, a 2008 graduate of YouthBuild Louisville, Kentucky, started his own green home-remodeling business. It was the emphasis on green building and environmental awareness that he learned at YouthBuild that inspired his green entrepreneurship. Hooten earned his carpentry certification from HBI by completing the preapprenticeship instruction from YouthBuild Louisville in 2009.

In 2010, the Green Initiative awarded Hooten a green-entrepreneurship grant funded by the Walmart Foundation. His revenue grew from $5,000 in 2011 to almost $50,000 in 2012. He is currently enrolled in an entrepreneur program at a community college and has won several awards for his achievements.

Partnering with the Private Sector

In December 2010, a first-of-its-kind three-year national partnership was forged between the Saint-Gobain Corporation Foundation and YouthBuild USA in support of the nonprofit’s national green-building and job-training program. Saint-Gobain, the world’s largest building materials company, has a strong tradition of corporate giving in North America through its Saint-Gobain Corporation Foundation. Historically, it had supported a wide range of nonprofit partners in the focus areas of arts and culture, civic and community, health and human services, and education. Donations were diffuse both geographically and in focus, with relatively little opportunity for employee volunteerism, product assistance, or community relations building via media relations. In short, the foundation’s efforts had not been aligned with Saint-Gobain’s business strategy of developing products to help professionals and communities around the world build and renovate comfortable, healthy, cost-efficient, and durable buildings. Saint-Gobain realized that its foundation was missing an important opportunity to educate future generations about sustainable building and environmental preservation by setting its own example of these practices.

In 2010, Saint-Gobain sought to establish a relationship with a national nonprofit that would provide geographic focus, long-term relationships, and opportunities to extend into a partnership in ways that went beyond just funding the partner. The nonprofit they chose was YouthBuild USA, specifically its green education and job-training program for disadvantaged youth who transform their lives by earning their high school diplomas while learning green-construction skills.

While we’ve rebuilt the house on Greene Street, we’ve also rebuilt our lives at YouthBuild. I’ve learned important life skills, like teamwork, time management, and being
able to trust others. I have learned how to take criticism and how to be a leader who is responsible for the success of a project.

Building Our Future Together

In December 2010, Saint-Gobain launched a three-year $550,000 partnership with YouthBuild USA, including support of green home renovation projects in four communities where Saint-Gobain has business concentrations: Akron, Ohio; Worcester, Massachusetts; Schenectady, New York; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In addition to funding from the foundation, the three-year partnership includes a commitment on behalf of Saint-Gobain to provide energy-efficient products, building science expertise, and employee volunteer support.

The partnership with the Saint-Gobain Corporation Foundation is a first of its kind for YouthBuild USA nationally. The support from Saint-Gobain, CertainTeed (the company’s North American construction materials division), and other Saint-Gobain subsidiaries is playing a key role in helping prepare YouthBuild students for jobs and entrepreneurship in the green economy.

Under the partnership with Saint-Gobain, Ciera Russum, a member of the Advanced Construction team at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School and a 2012 program graduate, worked on the renovation of a home that had been abandoned for nearly 20 years, and is now LEED Platinum (see “Rebuilding Homes and Lives in Philadelphia”). In her speech at the home’s ribbon-cutting event last August, Russum said:

Thanks to our instructors, the Saint-Gobain Corporation Foundation, and the building scientists at CertainTeed, we’ve learned new building skills that have opened my eyes to what I can do with my life. Sometimes this year I would come home from working on the house and try out things I’d learned on my mom’s house—like fixing a hole in her ceiling! Before YouthBuild, I’d never even picked up a piece of pipe in my life; now I will be attending Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in the fall to study plumbing.

learn more

Find out more about YouthBuild USA or visit buildingourfuturetogether.com. Download YouthBuild Program Design and Performance Standards for free.

While we’ve rebuilt the house on Greene Street, we’ve also rebuilt our lives at YouthBuild. I’ve learned important life skills, like teamwork, time management, and being able to trust others. I have learned how to take criticism and how to be a leader who is responsible for the success of a project.

Russum’s remarks exemplify the experiences of the 550 previously out-of-school and out-of-work young people who have benefited from the YouthBuild partnership with Saint-Gobain. Her story illustrates why YouthBuild USA made a commitment in 2005 to bring green-building training to the forefront of its programming, and how partners like Saint-Gobain help make a career in the green-collar economy possible.

Chris Cato, the Green Initiative project manager at YouthBuild USA, has spent the past 17 years at YouthBuild USA promoting environmental responsibility through direct coaching and by organizing outdoor leadership, green construction, and green-career education and training events.

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