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'Building with purpose': training program aims to train foster-care youth for construction careers

MinnPost photo by Kristoffer Tigue
From left to right, Program Manager Scott Eiden, LeGen Leaders Co-Founder Shawn Meschke and Co-Founder Chau Le.

The smell of freshly cut wood and the echoes of pounding hammers will soon fill the air at an old warehouse garage space in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood.

“This room is where the magic happens,” said Chau Le, showing off the space for his new nonprofit, LeGen Leaders, a non-profit workforce development organization that, starting today, will train youth aging out of the foster care system for careers in the construction trades.

For five years, Le worked at a youth group home, where he saw firsthand the barriers children in the state’s foster care system faced — everything from lacking education to homelessness, he said. “Those in the group homes were very transient,” he said. “A lot of time they struggle to take care of themselves.”

And those struggles are often thought to contribute to trouble later in life. According to a University of Minnesota report from last year, more than 23,000 youth nationwide will age out of foster care at the age of 18 without a permanent home or family. And for any youth who spent time in foster care, only 48 percent of them were employed by the age of 23 or 24 in 2015.

But Le wants to change that, and he’s hoping his new construction school can help nudge those unemployment numbers up, while also buying youth in the state’s foster care program more time to get their high school diploma or GED. “Construction may not be what they do for the rest of their lives,” Le said. “But what we’re doing is buying them more time.”

A three-year 'safety net'

When a child turns 18 in Minnesota, foster care services are typically terminated, unless they meet certain requirements, including being employed for at least 20 hours a week, or working towards the completion of a high school or post-secondary education. When that’s the case, state law requires counties to extend foster care services for an additional three years to allot more time to better prepare for adulthood.

In Hennepin County, around 1,500 children in foster care on any given day. By the end of each year, about 100 of them go into extended foster care, according to county officials. Of those, only a few leave without their high school diploma or GED.

But that wasn’t always the case, said Liz Scudder, program manager for Hennepin County Extended Foster Care. The state instituted the extended foster care program in 2008, she said, and before that almost half of the foster care recipients leaving the program didn’t have their high school diploma or equivalent.

Today, Hennepin County emphasizes everyone in their foster care program getting at least a high school education, Scudder said, and the extended foster care program provides a little extra time for those who can’t get their diploma by the age of 18. “The extended foster care program truly is the safety net for those youth,” she said.

Lilia Panteleeva, executive director for the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, said those three years can really help determine whether or not someone leaving foster care will be successful or not later in life. And programs like LeGen often offer crucial opportunities for those kids to learn some skills while buying that extra time. “LeGen is a way in which they can stay in care and gain the skills they’ll need for the rest of their lives,” she said.

Addressing the state’s construction shortage

The skills that LeGen Leaders will be learning are also in high demand. Last May, Associated Builders and Contractors reported that the unemployment rate for Minnesota construction workers was just 2.1 percent.

For LeGen, that’s a huge opportunity for those aging out of foster care — a group with higher rates of unemployment and lower annual salaries on average when compared to the rest of the population. “For the last two decades our society has said ‘Don’t go into the trade business,’” Le said. “The unintended consequence is we have a huge shortage in the construction industry.”

Currently, LeGen has one student enrolled in the program. By next year, however, Le wants to serve more than 100.

LeGen Leaders Program Manager Scott Eiden said trades like construction are often passed down through family lines, but he doesn’t believe it’s happening as often anymore. So he hopes their program can help re-establish that tradition and pass down the knowledge to kids who may not have parental figures in their lives. “We don’t teach our kids as much as we used to,” he said. “We need to get our hands dirty again.”

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