Building Home While Building Careers

Building Home While Building Careers

Some disadvantaged Birmingham teenagers are learning about construction while fixing up homes they will eventually own.

An unprecedented workforce program called Build UP is attracting national attention as the first to provide low-income youth with career-ready skills through paid apprenticeships and academic coursework.

Students learn job-ready skills, financial literacy and leadership while earning high-school diplomas and associate degrees. Build UP’s mission is three-pronged: education, stabilization and revitalization.

“At its heart, Build UP is a high school,” said Mark Martin, who came up with the idea while living in Boston and returned home to Alabama to get it started.

“Our young people are not just getting their typical high school academic education but they’re also getting valuable workforce skills and rebuilding homes in their community at the same time,” Martin said.

Students are from low-income/underserved communities on Birmingham’s west side.

“They’re getting an education that sets them up to actually make a difference,” he said. Practical skills they are learning can help solve some current labor market issues, he added.

“A lot of construction companies would love for us to be sending them people already, but it takes a while to get them ready,” he said.

When the students complete the program, they will be homeowners – “really the first generation in their families because all of them are currently renting,” Martin said.

“The families start out renting from us and as the student completes all the components and graduates they’ll get a zero-percentage interest mortgage on the home,” he said.

There are “no handouts,” Martin said, but they do get the no-interest advantage.

Prospective students enroll in a summer bootcamp to get a feel for what’s required.

“We’re always looking for people to come and enter,” he said. “We take between 14- and 16-year-olds but ideally as they leave eighth grade they come to us and we are the entire high school experience. They come to us for ninth grade and stay for approximately six years.”

Build UP started four years ago. Eight students went through high school graduation last year.

“We haven’t had any that have completed all the components,” Martin said. Part two is finishing the associate degree or completing a registered apprenticeship.

The program acquires homes several ways, such as donations, auctions and foreclosures.

Some owners of cottages in upscale Birmingham neighborhoods who might otherwise tear them down are donating them, Martin said. A nonprofit building company moves them to Ensley and neighboring Titusville.

Build UP is about to open a second campus in Birmingham. It is part of the federal Fannie Mae Sustainable Communities Challenge.

“We really want to expand it anywhere where we’re both wanted and needed,” he said, whether that’s elsewhere in Alabama or across the country.

Trey Wells, 15, said he is learning ”construction and how the process of everything works” through Build UP.

Wells said he is finding out how to operate tools and look out for the “safety of me and everyone around me while I am on the worksites.”

Source: Building Home While Building Careers This Is Alabama (February 14, 2022) Deborah Storey

Photo: Caleb Chancey