Youthbuild transforms lives and saves millions of dollars

The following column was originally published in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during March, 2023.

Youthbuild transforms lives and saves millions of dollars


Visiting a home that youngsters are building for a low-income family was one of the best mornings I’ve spent in years. Fortunately, this is happening all over Minnesota in suburban, rural and urban communities via a free program called Youthbuild.

Learning how valuable this is for the 16-to-24-year-old participating students and state taxpayers, several legislators introduced bills expanding these programs. Here are brief summaries of participants’ experiences, research documenting Youthbuild’s value, and what legislators are proposing.

The following comes from reports compiled by Kay Tracy, director, and her staff Nancy Waisanen and Larry Eisenstadt at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development:

  • “Frank had a difficult childhood and run-ins with the justice system. Determined to turn his life around, he joined Youthbuild. He earned his diploma, NCCER (National Center for Construction Education and Research) credential, and driver’s license. … He’s now a union apprentice earning $27.50 per hour.”
  • “Kaithlynn earned her diploma, 2-wheel and ATV Forklift, OSHA 10, Lead Worker, driver’s license, First Aid/CPR, and HBI RCA credentials in Youthbuild. She is a Local #322 registered apprentice carpenter at Frana Construction” (in Hopkins).
  • “Joey earned his high school diploma, forklift operations, rough terrain boom lift, lead safety, and OSHA 10 certifications in Youthbuild. He now earns $25 per hour as a Local #563 apprentice with Mavo Systems in the asbestos division.”
  • “Dylan dropped out of school, was homeless and in the court system. Youthbuild helped him find housing, pay off his fines, reinstate his driver’s license, earn his diploma and an OSHA 30 certificate. He now works at Range Steel Fabricators.”
  • Since joining Youthbuild, Jezzalyn worked on construction projects, earned her OSHA 10 certification, bought her first truck, chose a career and enrolled in PSEO. Asked what about Youthbuild was particularly helpful, Jezzalyn replied: “When we painted at the homeless shelter, I realized that a lot of people don’t have what I have. It inspired me to serve my community,” She also recently made an international softball team that is playing in Europe.

Jody Nelson, director of the GAP (Guadalupe Area Project in St. Paul, which I visited), told me about Hon Say Na: “He’s a Karen refugee from Burma (now known as Myanmar) who graduated in 2022. Though he needed to learn English, he wanted a career in construction. After graduation, he became an apprentice in a carpenter’s union. … He’s now making more than $25/hour and working toward his dreams.”


Home that GAP students currently are building in St Paul

Waisanen, Youthbuild coordinator for DEED, examined Youthbuild’s “return on investment” for Minnesota taxpayers. After studying 398 participants who began the program, she found:

  • The majority had dropped out of school and were from low-income families.
  • 33% had some form of disability.
  • 23% had experienced homelessness.
  • 20% were pregnant or teen parents.

Results were very encouraging:

  • 91% completed a high school or GED degree.
  • Only 5% of those with a prior offense were rearrested or reconvicted within two years of enrolling in the program, compared to 27% for a similar cohort.
  • Minnesota taxpayers saved about $3 million in costs of reincarceration.
  • The overall “return on taxpayer investment” was $3.20 for every $1 spent on the program.

Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine, and Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, who attended St. Louis Park High School, are lead authors on bills H.F. 1310 and S.F. 1693 that will expand Youthbuild. A staff member of Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, told me that she will be a co-author.

Current Youthbuild sites are throughout Minnesota: Intermediate School District 288, serving Scott and Carver counties; Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services, serving Monticello, Pine City, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Sherburne and Wright counties; plus Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Minneapolis, Moorhead, Rochester, St. Cloud and St. Paul.

For more information about ISD 288,  visit this page.  Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services youth programs are headquartered in Monticello; learn more here.  or by calling 320-365-0321. You can read more about Youthbuild here.  .

Youthbuild is government at its best — transforming lives and saving taxpayers money.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome:

Here are two brief statements by Youthbuild alumni that were presented in March, 2023 testimony to the Minnesota Senate Jobs and Economic Development Committee

YouthBuild Testimony #1

Hello Chair Champion, Co-Chair Mohamed and committee members. Thank you for the opportunity to testify on SF 1693.

My name is Aung Myo Way and I am 30 years old. I was born in Myanmar, my country has been ravaged by war since 1948. When I was 5 years old I have to flee my village because the Burmese army came and burned it down. I was forced to move to Thailand and live in a refugee camp.

My life was so hard in the refugee Camp. I was living in a wooden box that was hardly bigger than a dog house. We barely had enough food, we always ate every last grain of rice and any insect or animal we could find. l lived in the refugee camp for about 15 years. Those were the hardest years of my life. We had some school in refugee camp, but our education was very poor. When was 19 years old I had a big opportunity to move to America. It was a bitter sweet moment because I was told I had to leave with only my young twin sisters and leave my whole family, friends and country behind.

When I firsts came to America I could barely speak English. I had a lot of problems, even going shopping was very difficult. The worst part was transportation and finding a job. America was very difficult to survive without good English skills and having no job experience. After about two years I heard about the Youth build program, they helped me improve my English skills and I gained experience in construction. In the Youthbuild program I learned about building houses and leadership. Youthbuild has produced a lot of good workers for the Union trades and other occupations. As an Immigrant Youthbuild program has been a very import part of my life.

In Youthbuild I got my high school diploma and job skills that improved my life so much. I hope that more young people can join Youthbuild because it changed my life. I was working in a low paying job and I did not have a stable place to live. I myself have recommended many youth to join the program to improve their lives. My life has changed so much since I joined Youthbuild. Today I make more than $40/hr. as a Journeyman in the union, and I own my own home. I owe all my success to the Youthbuild program and I hope you will support them with increased funding for other young people like me.  .

Aung Myo Way

GAP YouthBuild Grad 2015


Youthbuild Testimony #2

Hello Chair Champion, Co- Chair Mohamed and committee members.

My name is Hser Pwe, I was born in Burma. I was grew up in a Thailand refugee camp. I lived there with my family for 12 years. We had to move there because of the civil war and Burmese soldier were trying to kill us and take our land. This the reason we had to flee our village and move to the Thailand refugee camp. When we lived in refugee I felt like we lived in prison because cannot go outside of camp, there were very few opportunities in camp.   

In 2012 I moved to the United States. I did not know anything about America and I did not speak and English. I went to LEAP High School for a year but it was very difficult for me. I did not speak English and it was hard for me to understand what teacher said. After a year I was unable to attend school there because I’m over 21 years old.

Luckily for me I found the YouthBuild program in GAP school. I then realized I could have a high school diploma and learn construction skills, I finally felt like I had an opportunity and a future. In YouthBuild I learned a lot of English and started to communicate with others, but I really learned to love construction work. My wife, brother and cousin also graduated from the Youthbuild program at GAP School.

I graduated in 2014, the staff helped me find as job in floor covering and I joined the union. I still work there now, it has been a great 8 years for me. I found a career I love and I make over $44/hr. and I have worked my way up to being a foreman. I’m so thankful for this program and all the staff who have helped me. Thank you so much to the YouthBuild program for giving me this big opportunity! Because of this program I can speak English, support my wife and children and I have even became a U.S. citizen. Without YouthBuild I do not know where I would be today.

Hser Pwe

Youthbuild graduate 2014