Nonprofit helps teens rebuild future
Richmond group teaches construction skills for employment
RICHMOND — A year ago, James Hill was out of school and out of work. At 17, he wasn't hopeful about life.
"I thought it was going to be like a charity case," Hill said.
Today, the Richmond resident is ready to start a job in construction and is working toward his General Educational Development diploma.
Hill is one of the success stories of YouthBuild, a city-run education and job-training pro-gram that places Richmond teens and young adults in construction jobs. For Hill and nine peers, the most recent Youth-Build course has provided a path to a decent wage.
Still, despite the many James Hills — more than 100 Richmond youths are served by various city job programs each year — Richmond continues to suffer from higher unemployment and lower wages than the rest of the Bay Area. According to 2006 census estimates, the unemployment rate in Richmond was about 9 percent, 50 percent higher than in the Bay Area as a whole. Work force training is helping individuals such as Hill, analysts say, but the city needs more money and better education to help its struggling residents.
"The next step is to help support more programs like RichmondBUILD, like YouthBuild, but in other sectors," said Jennifer Lin, research director with the Oakland-based nonprofit East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. Richmond-BUILD, YouthBuild and another program, YouthWORKS, provide job training services in various industries under the larger RichmondWORKS program.
Lin said Richmond should look to Oakland, which has worked with churches to provide job training. But she added that Richmond has made progress in the last few years despite inconsistent funding from state and federal authorities.
Hill moved to Richmond from Oakland four years ago. Like most in the program, he never graduated from high school. And he arrived with a list of expulsions.
During his senior year, Hill's grandfather died. A few weeks later, his father was killed in a car accident. And just five days after the funeral, Hill was in a crash that broke his hip. He spent eight weeks in bed recuperating. By the time he recovered, the prospect of returning to school was too much.
But with his mother mourning two deaths, Hill woke up.
"My mom needed someone to support her," he said. "Sooner or later I'd be in jail or someone would take me out."
A neighbor brought him a flier for YouthBuild and Hill began to turn his life around. Once in the program, which typically lasts six to nine weeks, his instructors gave him a tool belt and taught him how to use a skill saw and put up sheetrock.
"The workshop is a construction site," said the teen, who also spent hours in the classroom reviewing algebra and other math skills.
Such work force training can be a godsend for some struggling youth, but many others slip through the cracks, said Sheryl Lane, Richmond campaign coordinator at Urban Habitat, which works to improve the quality of life in low-income communities.
"You're not going to be able to reach everyone who needs a resource with these types of programs," she said.
Richmond's economic woes are complex, rooted in history and demographics, Lin said. In Richmond, as in other industrial cities throughout the country, a decline in manufacturing jobs over the last couple decades was met with more lower-paying service jobs.
Richmond has enacted some successful policies to fight these forces, such as a local employment ordinance that sets standards for businesses contracting with or receiving subsidies from the city. Depending on the industry, firms must hire between 20 percent and 30 percent of their workers from within the city.
But Lane said policy-makers have favored an approach to economic growth — attracting surplus housing developments and high-skilled jobs — that does not help the majority of current residents: Just one in four Richmondites, age 25 and older, has a bachelor's degree, compared with about 40 percent for the Bay Area, according to 2006 census estimates. Lane believes the city should focus on developing unused industrial land to attract employers that will offer good-paying, low-skilled jobs.
Those running job-training programs are the first to acknowledge they are no panacea. At their best, the programs help struggling individuals put their lives together, but the challenges can be steep, said Ron Shaw, senior employment program specialist at YouthBuild.
"They're facing all the obstacles that teenagers face," he said. "Peer pressure, the violence that's happening in the city, a substandard education system. It's universal."
YouthBuild can reach only 30 kids with each two-year grant. And the ability of graduates to find work after the program depends in part on forces beyond their control.
"You know what the state of the California economy is," he said.
And government funding is never guaranteed. The federal Department of Labor, which pays for YouthBuild and similar programs across the country with grants ranging from
$400,000 to $700,000, turned down its most recent grant application. When current money runs out later this month, the program will have to go on hold until at least next year.
Hill saw the uncertainties of the labor market up close last week: Richmond's Corporation Yard, which provides interim jobs for some program graduates, doesn't have the funds to hire any more right now. Hill took it in stride, though, and seemed confident things will work out. Until he finds work, he is spending most of his time studying for the GED exam, which he was scheduled to take over the weekend.