Workforce News

Building a New Life in Ramsey County

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27 June 2022


Nearly five million persons in America between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither working nor in school, with roughly three million living in poverty, without access to education, employment or training. The reasons are numerous, from housing insecurity or homelessness to being young parents or aging out of school or foster care.

“There is a huge gap for hands-on learning for this group of youth who have become disconnected from schooling or employment,” said Becky Brink Ray, Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota (GESMN) Director of Career Training & Education. 

The GESMN YouthBuild program, in partnership with the national YouthBuild organization, aims to reduce that gap for young people to rebuild their lives and thereby improve the Ramsey County community. YouthBuild is a free program where disconnected youth can simultaneously receive hands-on construction and leadership skills training while earning a GED or diploma, effectively helping young people break out of their current situation. 

“Our disconnected youth are falling through the cracks, and their experience in society feels quite different compared to many others,” said Brink Ray. “Some could attend Adult Basic Education classes and obtain their GED, but if they are under 18, they get pushed back into the school system, which is the right step, but for so many youth, it isn’t working.”

Academic, skill-training and leadership

The GESMN YouthBuild program involves young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not currently enrolled in school but are interested in working towards a GED or diploma. Their current situation results from several factors, such as dropping out of high school, poverty, language deficiencies, justice adjudication, homelessness, pregnancy, disability and more. The program combines classroom instruction, project-based construction shop work and construction work experience. The model provides young people with a hands-on learning environment with various educational approaches to cater to diverse learning styles. The program also features peer mentoring, caring staff or volunteer adult mentors and leadership and community service learning. Additionally, participants can access to assistance to increase their ability to attend and complete the program, like stipends and bonuses to help with personal commitments. The community resources department also offers work clothes, tools and transportation as needed.

Goodwill Easter SealsStudents spend roughly half their time in individualized classrooms working toward their high school diploma or equivalent, earning skills and certifications to succeed in high-demand careers and preparing for postsecondary education or apprenticeships. 

Another 40% of the program involves construction skills training, where they learn hand and power tool use, framing, drywall, siding, roofing and deconstruction while earning credentials and certificates including OSHA 10, MNDOT Flagger, NCCER YRGE and NCCER Core. Their training includes the hands-on building of affordable housing units, construction projects and more to improve their communities. The last 10% of the program involves leadership training through guest speakers on civic responsibility, conversations with employers and more.

“When the result is a diploma or GED, career credentials and increased confidence, young people are on their way to a better place,” said Brink Ray.

Ramsey County experience

In starting its YouthBuild program, GESMN relied on the deep relationships it has built in Ramsey County for years. It has run a twelve-week construction program for over 20 years for individuals 18+. In addition, it offers eight- to ten-week courses in automotive service technician, business professional and financial industry.

“We have wanted to find the best manner to reach youth for years, but we needed to develop the academic piece,” said Brink Ray. “The YouthBuild model with the Department of Labor backing offers the relationship between academics and gaining employment, which helps break these youth out of the cycle they are in.”

Sustainable program

While the COVID-19 pandemic had multiple negative impacts on many arenas, it helped strengthen the YouthBuild program, said Brink Ray.

“It has worked out even better than before by going to a hybrid model where individuals have been participating remotely for two days and then spend three days on-site,” she said. “Our summer cohort will be 100% in person and we’ve decided that our next cohort will be as well.”

More than 225 YouthBuild programs in the U.S. are funded by the Department of Labor (DOL). About seven years ago, the GESMN program received the first of two three-year grants from DOL. While grateful for the funding but facing the reality of depending on federal funding, GESMN sought methods to make the program sustainable. It has since received funding through the Governor’s Reserve Funds and a Ramsey County grant to help continue its local programming in the metro region, specifically for Ramsey County residents. That momentum continues this summer as GESMN has extended its programming to St. Paul Public Schools to allow summer school students to spend time at their Training Center for hands-on carpentry training. 

“Overall, our goal is to give these youth a sense of belonging and build their confidence to help them realize they are an important part of their community,” said Brink Ray. 


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