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Seven Minutes from the World

Urban Upbound recently launched a program that prepares young adults living in New York City public housing developments for careers in the city’s growing construction sector. This story is part of a series on the innovative ways that 2016 Youth Opportunity Fund community partners, supported by America’s Promise Alliance and the Citi Foundation, are placing low-income young adults on a path to career success.

When Bishop Mitchell G. Taylor was a kid, his father told him never to move out of his hometown of Queens, New York.

“This place will be a metropolis someday,” his dad said, because “you’re seven minutes from the world.”

“You’re seven minutes from Manhattan, seven minutes from Brooklyn, and most importantly, seven minutes from LaGuardia International Airport. And besides,” Taylor recalls his father saying, “it’s better to be in Queens looking at the Manhattan skyline than in Manhattan looking at Queens.”

Bishop—now the co-founder and CEO of Urban Upbound, an organization that offers financial counseling, employment services, youth development, and college access services—knows a thing or two about the power of location. He’s quick to point out that the organization’s campus in Queens (there are five others throughout the city) is situated directly across the street from the largest public housing development in North America.

Urban Upbound

It’s this location that helps describe Urban Upbound’s underlying ethos: Residents don’t need to look outside the community to improve their own world.

A Focus on Soft Skills

For many communities and cities in America, gentrification can be a dirty word. But Patricia Saenz, director of Youth Pathways at Urban Upbound, says Long Island City welcomes the new developments coming to the region because they provide jobs and more services.

More than anything, Saenz says, the community knows that anytime a new development is being considered, Urban Upbound will act as an advocate for the community’s interests and needs.

For example, whenever new hotels have popped up, Long Island City residents have been given priority for the jobs it would create. Same goes for retail. And most recently, a major real estate developer, the Durst Organization, wanted to hire residents of New York City Public Housing Authority for the construction work of a new development, the Hallets Point Project.

There was just one problem: Many of the people applying, mostly young adults, lacked the necessary skills. It wasn’t just hard skills like how to operate a fork lift; most of them didn’t show up on time or know how to work in a team. Durst said they were willing to train young people in the actual construction work, but the soft skills were invaluable.

Urban Upbound

So Urban Upbound came up with a plan. They created a new program called the Exploration in Construction (EPIC) program, which officially launched in February 2017 with help from a Youth Opportunity Fund grant. The eight-week program teaches students these important soft skills, like how to write a resume, teamwork, and the importance of showing up on time.

The Appeal of Construction

There are more people working in construction in New York City today than at any point since 1975, the Wall Street Journal reported, with an average salary of $76,300. For some students, this job security and paycheck draws them to the field.

But others like that the work is hands-on, that they don’t have to sit in front of a computer all day. “I like building things,” one student said.

Another added that she likes the challenge of breaking into a male-dominated field. “And I like the benefits from having a union job,” she said.

Yet another student spoke of the sense of fulfillment he gets from being able to see the physical manifestation of his work, from being able to see something he built.

“That sense of accomplishment, that sense of completion. It’s good if you can get that satisfaction from your job,” he said.

Urban Upbound plans to train as many as 350 young adults living in public housing this year, and the Hallets Point project with Durst is expected to last for seven years and produce 10 buildings.

The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative, which launched in 2014 in the United States with a $50 million, three-year commitment that helped more than 100,000 young people, ages 16-24, across 10 cities to become career-ready through first jobs, internships, and leadership and entrepreneurship training. In February 2017 the Citi Foundation announced a global expansion of the Pathways to Progress initiative with a $100 million, three-year investment to prepare 500,000 young people for today’s competitive job market.