The Working Man Interview - Episode 5

Building a Purpose: Teaching Career Skills to At-Risk Youth at GA Building Trades Academy

Our youth is at the most risk between ages 16-24. Learning a marketable trade skill as a young person can mean the difference between fulfillment and despair. Georgia Building Trades Academy's Project Director Kristina Smith joins TWMI to talk about their YouthBuild program. The program teaches young people the trade skills necessary to begin a career in the construction industry. She explains who qualifies, how you can get involved, and what to expect.

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(Transcript) Kristina Excerpt: We will start off with a mental toughness. It's a competition to be in our program and that mental toughness brings young people together and tests their skill levels, tests their ability to work as a team to see if they're really, really cut out for a YouthBuild program.

Opening: You're listening to The Working Man Interview, a podcast about building purpose with conversations on issues facing men in the middle class hosted by Rutland Walker, founder of Union Up.

Rut: With all the fallout from COVID-19 some industries have been deemed essential and others non-essential. The nonessential businesses have shut down for the most part. While essential businesses have been allowed to continue and one of those businesses deemed essential in most markets is construction and the skilled trades. And I got to thinking about our young people, those that are currently in high school or recently out of high school who might otherwise not give the construction trades a second look and may now be thinking about a different path to a better career opportunity given what careers are deemed essential. And many young people may not understand their options to learn a skill or they don't know where to get started, which led me to our guest today. I'd like to welcome Kristina Smith who is the project director for the Georgia Building Trades Academy Youth Build program. Do you go by Kristina or Kristy?

Kristina: Actually my students call me Kristy, but when I'm out in public I say Kristina. But that relationship that I have with my young people, I just tell them to call me Kristy.

Rut: Okay. Can I call you Kristy? Okay. So YouthBuild is essentially a program that helps young people train in the construction trades, correct?

Kristina: That is correct.

Rut: In your definition, what is YouthBuild and how did you get involved in it?

Kristina: YouthBuild, I would say, is a movement and it's a movement in the skills trade industry. When I started working with young people, I was working with the workforces, helping young people who were in school or out of school, 16 to 24, help them find their way as a career. And what I found out was a lot of young people are not interested in the career, I call them the "old careers" like your choices are a doctor, a lawyer, maybe a firefighter. They wanted something new, they wanted something different. And so when I got recruited actually by YouthBuild and found out that there were so many trades open up to young people and there's such a need for it such as electrical, sheet metal workers, masonry, or plumbing, and found out that these young people really like to work with their hands but they were not aware that this was a career in the construction trades and how valuable that the trades are for our country. And so when I found out that, okay, wow, this is hands on training, it doesn't cost the participant, all they have to do is show up. And if you don't have a GED or a high school diploma that we would help you attain that. I said I have to be a part of this program because one of my personal goals is to help young people reach their full potential.

Rut: I agree. I'm a father of three boys myself. I know that not everybody is cut out or wants to go to college. There's a lot of people out there that have a seemingly insurmountable amount of debt and have gotten degrees that may or may not suit their career goals. So I'm very in tune with that. And of course my firm works with construction trade unions all over the country. So it's a ministry of mine as well. I wanted to ask you, what can a young person expect out of the youth build program? In other words, what does a typical day like?

Kristina: Well, the best thing is there's no typical day. It's almost like in construction you have an outline of what you're going to do that day and you're hoping it's going to go to plan, but at any moment, anything may come up. And one of the good things about our program is that we will start off with a mental toughness. It's a competition to be in our program. And that mental toughness, is like more of an orientation brings young people together and test their skill levels, test their ability to work as a team to see if they're really, really cut out for a YouthBuild program. Because unfortunately we can't take everybody, but for my grant we start off, we're about 32 participants. They compete for those slots and usually a day will be you will do education in the morning and you will do construction in the evening and sometimes we split that schedule. We try to keep it versatile, we don't like to be bored, so we don't want the participants to be bored. So sometimes we'll have a work site, we actually have a work site, but we'll go out, use hands on training so we may work with a partner doing drywall, we might be doing painting, we may be doing roofing, we might be installing windows so they can get that hands on experience. And just like an apprenticeship, you still have your education part to do. And that's why we try to keep it similar to an apprenticeship class. But all in all, it's exciting. It's definitely not your run of the mill type of program where we run a lot of people through there. If I had to describe it as totally fun and it's something different, it's out the norm. So if a young person is looking for something different, the Youth Build Program at the Georgia Building Trades Academy is one they should look into.

Rut: So you said 16 to 24 year olds. Do you typically have kids that young or is it more kids in their early twenties or what's your, what's your student body look like?

Kristina: So most of my students are usually either 18 and up. We have a lot of interest from 16 year olds, but a lot of times they're not quite sure what they really want to do. And realize by the time they get 18, 19, they're really starting to think seriously about a career and they want to make some real money and they are not looking to do fast food. Or they're looking for something that will get them ahead of their peers. And I say that because the apprenticeship program, the pre-apprenticeship program that we have is a pathway to apprenticeship. And what that means is we'll give you an overview of what it's like to do certain trades and you find out what your personal skill level is. So you say, you know what, I really realized that I'm really good at painting and through this program I found that out and once I leave here, I plan to go into the painters' union. Well we help facilitate that. Once they finish our program, they have direct entry into an apprenticeship and they'll get a job, they'll get training and once they finish their four to five year apprenticeship, they'll become masters in their trade.

Rut: How long is the program, by the way?

Kristina: The program is nine months. Due to the COVID19 situation that we're having right now, we'll probably fast track that. So we'll probably, instead of nine months, we'll try to fit as much as we can into a good seven to eight months. But at the same time we won't leave anyone behind. So if a person needs extra training, we'll make sure they get it. But when I say nine months, a lot of people go, Oh man, that's a long time, but in actuality it goes so fast. You'll get your MC3 certification through us. It's only offered through trades programs or you have to apply for permission to teach that curriculum and they'll get their certifications and safety certifications with us as well. Once they complete the program.

Rut: Is it a full time program or can they work while they're doing it or how does that work?

Kristina: So our program is from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM and we encourage all participants to work and have part time jobs after 3:00 PM so we try to get that flexibility so they'll have time to work from like four to 10 or four to 12 so they can actually earn money. And we want that because we want them to understand what it's like to work and go to training at the same time.

Rut: Are they typically working in those jobs after 3:00 PM? Are those jobs typically in construction or are they just a varied number of businesses?

Kristina: There's usually a varied number of businesses because most young people that come to us, this is their first time actually dealing in trade specific training and they get the skills from us and once they finish that training then their next job is definitely going to be in that trade area. Some of our students finish before others. So say for instance, a young person already has their high school diploma and they'd been out of school and they were looking for a program such as ours and they qualified, they will probably finish a program sooner. And then once they finish, they're able to do what we call an internship where they actually get to go to a real construction site, business, and work and get paid during that time that they're working.

Rut: So you said once they qualified, how do they go about getting involved? What are the qualifications to be in Georgia's YouthBuild program?

Kristina: We are funded by the department of labor and so a couple of our qualification is young people need to be the age of 16 to 24 and then it varies. Some people, if you're a low income that would make you a qualifier, meaning that you get food stamps or some type of government assistance. The second thing is that if you had some issue with the law before and you have some things on your record, that's one of our qualifications as well. If you have that on your record, you could be eligible. Another one if you're in foster care, that you would be eligible or homeless. And if you don't meet any of those qualifications, one of the things is you have to be basic skills deficient and that what that means is we'll give you a test as a test of basic skills to test your reading and math skills. And if you score below a ninth grade level, then you will be eligible for our program.

Rut: And so how do you handle that when they, because when in the construction trades, particularly in some of them, you know, there has to be some level of understanding of math and different things like that. How do you go about getting them ready for that?

Kristina: One of those things is we test their math skills, during mental toughness as well. Sometimes we realize that the way that they were taught in school didn't kind of click with them. And so when we go on through mental toughness and we're doing some of these drills that we realize that we have changed the way that we teach our young people and their math skills or where they thought they were horrible in math they're actually outstanding in math. It was just the way their brains were thinking because one thing about it, we're hands on training, right? So we're actually showing you, okay this is the math, but if we're going to do some measurements, this is the hands on how you measure and this is why we do it. And for some reason it clicks. And then next thing I know is, go from a person who hates math to a lover in math.

Rut: Yeah. So it's more an applied mathematics rather than theoretical in a classroom.

Kristina: Correct.

Rut: How do you recruit, how do you find your students?

Kristina: This has always been a struggle for all YouthBuild programs because a lot of the young people, they may not be out, you know, they kind of stay home or they may be working in a part time job. We reach out to our partners such as the school systems, counselors, churches, and we're actually just putting out signs throughout the city and near gas stations and places where you can pick up food so people can see where we are. We also started our Instagram, which is, GABTA, which stands for Georgia Building Trade Academy. We have our Instagram that we're trying to push out information so young people can find us and sign up for our program.

Rut: What does it take to be successful in this program? I mean, how do you, when you see people who've completed the program, what traits do you see that would make it where they have success here?

Kristina: My most successful students are the ones that listened to us. And I know that sounds kind of cliche, but a lot of times as a young person, you think you know what it takes to get into a certain career, but if you do exactly what we tell you to do, like show up on time, make sure that you're listening, make sure that you are working well with others when we're doing instruction, make sure that you are present in the moment, make sure you're interacting with your team members and those things that we tell you to do that we know that employers have actually drill down in us as a program to say, this is what we're looking for when we're trying to hire someone, or enter someone into an apprenticeship. Those are my most successful people that finish our program.

Rut: So I love the fact that you give people a second chance. I mean, maybe they made a mistake, got in trouble with the law at some sort when they were younger. Have you been through the court systems or probation officers or some way, some sort of law enforcement way to disseminate this information to somebody who realized the error of their ways and they said, you know, I'll really need to get my act together and this is a good way to do it if you have you gone down that route.

Kristina: So actually, we make sure that we do reach out to the juvenile justice system and some judges have even heard about our program and refer students over to our program. And that's one of the things that I've actually had people who had probation officers reduce their probation or get rid of their probation altogether because they complete the program. And a lot of that stems from them just following what they said they were going to do. They said they were going to sign up for the program and finish it and get their GED and get a job. And, the court systems love to see how a young person can progress through a program like ours and feel like, Hey, you know what, you messed up before but you really took this program seriously and you're a totally different person because you've gained so many skills and you're such an asset to our community that they'll reduce their sentencing.

Rut: And it gives them some purpose and there's a dearth of purpose, I think more than anything, particularly among young people. They're not sure what their place is in the world. And I'm not sure what their purpose is. And I love this program for that very reason. Do you typically get inquiries from the students themselves or to parents reach out to you or how do you typically get your inquiries?

Kristina: So usually it's word of mouth and it may come from grandmothers, uncles, aunts, mentors, people who have finished the youth build program before, and then they reach out to us and say, Hey, you know, I was given your information about a YouthBuild program. You know, I like to know more. And to me that means a lot when a young person reaches out to you and we take it very seriously. It's definitely not a situation where when you call, there's this long drawn out process and then you have to wait in this long line. No, we take each applicant very seriously and we listen and I think that's one of the reasons as a YouthBuild movement throughout the country, we've been very successful as a program.

Rut: Have you seen some young people that come in that you may have been iffy on to begin with, but I've seen sort of a transformation and if you have, can you share that story?

Kristina: Yes. I had a young participant that was in our program. I didn't think he was going to making it all. He didn't show up on time. He did not work well with others and I sent him home plenty of times were sleeping in class and I just said, Hey, you're going down this road. This may not be the program from you. You might need to find something else. And after we had that talk, he did a total 360 degree. He ended up being my student of the year and what that means is that he was respected by all of his peers. He was on time, he completed all his certifications, got his GED, entered an apprenticeship and was a mentor to his other peers and totally shocked everyone and he says it really just sets a YouthBuild program for him to find purpose, to figure out what he wanted to do, why he wanted to do it, and the next thing I know, he's on Instagram showing how he's doing an electrical work and he entered into the IBEW apprenticeship in something that he loves, electrical work.

Rut: That's awesome. Is it as simple as I think young people sometimes they don't even know what it means to be held accountable. Do you find that to be the case? And once they do, that gives them purpose. You know, like, wow, there's something other than just me here I need to be, they've never had a situation where anybody has held them accountable.

Kristina: Right, right. I think a lot of young people are just told what to do and listen to adults when they're talking. And when I tell you to do something, you do it. And then when it's a time for them to hear your own voice and say, Hey, what do you want to do? What do you see yourself in the future? I usually get silent because you're expecting someone to tell you where you should be and having to be accountable just for yourself. It's huge. And so we go through our program just finding out who you are, why do you do the things you do, what, what makes you special and why should you be held accountable for your actions? And a lot of our young people who come to our program, their actions that got them to their program, either you didn't, you failed to do your work in school or when you finish school you had no idea what you want to do. So you just did nothing. And that's accountability in itself. And so what we to do is we want to make sure that we hear you, but we need you to hear yourself and say, Hey, why am I here? What's my purpose? And I believe every young person has a purpose. They just need to find out what it is for them.

Rut: I agree. So over nine months, and even fast track, seven or eight months, that's a nice comprehensive program. What do they learn month to month in the program?

Kristina: Well, we like to start off with increasing their math and reading comprehension skills. We realize that increasing those skills make them more valuable once they leave our program. And I like to do it competition style, you know, everyone learns in a different way. But we realized that for our program and for our purposes, that interaction is what's needed and that camaraderie to work with a team and work with teammates. So we will break up in groups and we'll do math drills. We'll do, sometimes we'll actually have, who can hammer a nail the fastest, or who could build a bridge. And we'll sometimes we'll use construction paper and just to see how well you're working with a team and to build camaraderie with your team members because you're going to be with them a long time, you know, nine months and you can really get on each other's nerves or you can really lift each other up. And what we like to see is that there's a group of people with the same purpose and the same goals on the same direction. So when it's time to move on to your different apprenticeships that you have somebody to lean on, to give a phone call and say, Hey, how's your apprenticeship going? Mine's going great. Or I had a rough day a at my apprenticeship you know, I need to hear a word. I feel like I want to walk out, which a lot of people do feel like on their regular job that it's a lot. I want to walk out. And so you have a group of peers that you can lean on at the end of our program.

Rut: That's awesome. And this is in Atlanta, Georgia? Yes.

Kristina: Yes. We're in Atlanta, Georgia. We're located in the IBWE, which is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on 501 Pulliam Street. And we're on the fourth floor right now. We are closed, but however we're open for business online. We're actually going to start our online Instagram so we can reach out and have face to face conversations with young people who may be interested, so all I have to do is follow our Instagram page at GABTA Georgia Building Trades Academy. That's what it stands for, a youth build program. And they can watch some of our tutorials and actually get to know us.

Rut: And I'll put those links in the, in the text that we publish. So are there programs like this? Do you have affiliate programs if somebody is listening in another part of the country or another part of the state and they can't get to Atlanta? Are there programs like this in other parts of the country?

Kristina: Absolutely. YouthBuild USA is actually nationwide. We have programs, California, New York, Ohio, and we also have Hawaii. We had one in Africa and it's a total movement for young people to find their full potential. And so one of the things we have in YouthBuild is once you feel always you feel, so if you finish our program and you go to another state and there's another YouthBuild program, they will welcome you with open arms. They will help you whatever you need help with. And I think that's one of the good things about being a part of a movement so big.

Rut: Kristy that is great and I'm glad you're in the position you're in. If someone is interested in this program, what's the easiest way to get involved?

Kristina: Easiest way to get involved is to actually give us a call or you can send me an email and we'll definitely get in touch however you want to help or if it's something you want to participate in or if you'd like to hear me come speak to your church or a gathering that you may be having, an online social event, I'll show up and talk about our program and see how I can help you help your young people.

Rut: I'll post all that in the notes as well for anybody that might be interested. Kristy, I appreciate your time. Good luck with YouthBuild and I hope to talk to you again soon.

Kristina: All right. Thank you.

Closing: You've been listening to The Working Man Interview, a podcast about building a purpose brought to you by Union Up for more episodes and more information. Visit


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