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A Non-Profit's unCommon Practice
Apprentice-Students Study Building Trades

In New Orleans, an organization called unCommon is encouraging young people to take an interest in construction as a long-term career path. It does this through on-the-job, hands-on learning experiences at actual homebuilding sites.

A nonprofit called unCommon has started a new program in New Orleans to entice young people to pursue careers in an industry badly in need of more qualified tradespeople - construction.

UnCommon is also about "empowering youth," and giving them the skills they need to continue their chosen career paths after high school or college.

Through an apprenticeship program, high school students are trained in building trades in a very hands-on manner.

The apprentices are taught the many crafts needed to construct a typical home, from the framing and cabinetry to the electrical and plumbing systems.

Aaron Frumin founded the program, which relies heavily on donations. A good deal of these funds are used for basic items such as tools and materials; insurance policies, such as workmen's compensation; transportation expenses, because the apprentices are still in high school and work after school and on weekends; and curriculum costs, including paying rent for places to host for lectures, guest speaker presentations and also to teach apprentices how to read blueprints.

While apprentices are in school, unCommon staffers and volunteers prep construction sites. For the time being, unCommon has partners with Habitat for Humanity. Then the apprentices build houses from scratch by working after school and on weekends. They also earn weekly pay and high school credits.

Each UnCommon program lasts four months, and its inaugural group of apprentices just started building its first home earlier this month.

"We're flipping the model of traditional workforce development, "unCommon states on its website." It used to be that you had to pick up trash or move heavy materials by hand before being trusted with a hammer or tape measure. Or, that you had to be a bus boy before becoming a server in a restaurant."

UnCommon adds: "We can't continue to expect that those same methods will build the next generation of engineers, architects and project managers. Our kids and community don't have time for that."

The nonprofit does have a long-range plan. Through its fund-raising efforts, it hopes to generate enough working capital to someday complete projects on its own and develop a more consistent apprenticeship schedule. "The long-term strategy is to build and sell houses to first-time homebuyers, using the proceeds to provide apprentices with scholarships for further education, industry certifications or the tools needed for a full-time job," unCommon says on its website.

By the time an apprentice graduates from high school, the would-be construction worker should have recorded 120 hours of instruction and hands-on learning time, according to unCommon's estimates.

But unCommon isn't solely about teaching people building trades. It instills in them the "soft skills" and leadership qualities employers value in their employees, the website says. Employers look for new hires that are reliable, take initiative and work well with others in a team approach. UnCommon's curriculum makes students aware of the importance of exhibiting these types of traits.

The need for skilled workers is so great in Louisiana that the state's Department of Education has begun a program called Jump Start. One of its goals is to "de-stigmatize vocational education and provide a certification pathway to high demand, high paying jobs," unCommon says on its website.

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August 23, 2019, 1:30 pm PDT

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