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Youths learn construction skills and life skills in nonprofit Green Corps program

Four years ago, Donte Henry was working in retail, but he felt that a career in construction was his calling.

“I like to work with my hands. I like to step back and take appreciation of my work,” he said. “My mom used to call me destructive, because I'd take my toys apart and put them back together. I would always say that I might end up being a mechanic or a construction worker.”

He was right, thanks in part to Louisiana Green Corps, a construction and conservation job-training program for young adults who are not in school and are struggling to create a sustainable career. Through a partnership with the SBP Inc., formerly the St. Bernard Project, participants ages 18 through 24 rehabilitate blighted homes in the greater New Orleans area.

Henry joined the 14-week program in fall 2016. He was 20 at the time.

“I got confident using a saw, swinging hammers, using drills — all kinds of stuff,” he said. “I learned different skills, from drywalling to rough carpentry.”

In addition to tool workshops, the program provides nationally recognized certification training and soft skills training, along with relevant academic lessons. Participants also receive a stipend and transportation.

After graduating from the program, Henry found a job in the construction industry. Helping build the new Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport terminal is one of the highlights of his career, he said.

Henry is now the training manager at Louisiana Green Corps, and he’s helping others hoping to find a way forward, in construction and life in general.

“Just try to get a skill, period, whether it's carpentry, welding, or painting. It could be anything,” he said. “Once you get a skill, nobody can take that from you.”

In addition to studying basic construction, Louisiana Green Corps students learn about energy efficiency, weatherization and green infrastructure.

“Green infrastructure is all these different systems that help water flow back into the ground instead of flooding our streets. So that’s a field that’s becoming more and more popular,” said Monique Pilié, the executive director of the organization. “A lot of our young adults are finding employment in those fields after they graduate. And they're making a pretty good wage, even at the entry level.”

The organization's soft-skills training program includes a focus on financial education: how to balance a budget, open a checking account and improve poor credit. And it helps participants find employment by offering guidance in résumé writing and interview techniques, and advice on how to handle difficult job situations.

“We do a lot of coping skills and critical thinking with them — how to make better decisions that are going to put you on a more positive path in life,” Pilié said. “The whole point is for us to help them find full-time employment, where they can earn a living wage and where there's room for upward mobility.”

Louisiana Green Corps connects graduates to the organization’s employer partners and keeps in touch with them for at least a year, offering the support they need to be successful in the working world.

“For a lot of our young adults, this is their first time holding down a job,” Pilié said. “There are a lot of hurdles that we try to help them navigate during this process.”

Eager to advance in construction, Andre Williams participated in the program in fall 2019.

“I already knew I liked working with my hands,” Williams said. “I was looking to grow and gain some experience and knowledge in the field.”

Williams is looking for a construction job and said he feels confident that he’ll land one soon — 91% of Louisiana Green Corps graduates obtain employment.

Williams’ mentors from the organization have helped him remain active and optimistic during his search.

“There are people that care about me, people that I can go to and tell them that something's wrong,” he said. “It just really changed my whole entire outlook knowing that I have a support system behind me.”

When it comes to impressing a potential employer, attitude is indeed important, Pilié said.

“Employers tell us it's not the hard skills that they're necessarily looking for, because they can train people to do the different construction skills,” she said. “It's being motivated to show up on time. It's working hard every day. It's calling your employer if you're not going to be there. It's those life skills that are the most critical and the most important.”

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