Building Houses, Framing Character
“If you build it, the resources will follow.”
This can-do attitude drives the success of both unCommon Construction and its founder and executive director, Aaron Frumin. The organization employs local high school students to build houses, providing on-the-job training that generates both income and school credit for the participants.
While unCommon Construction is a nonprofit, Frumin emphasized that “at our core, we are a construction company. The kids are not volunteers doing community service, they are paid employees working as a team to build the house.”
Frumin himself went through a multi-step process to develop this unusual youth training and development model. He first came to New Orleans in 2005 as a Red Cross volunteer in the aftermath of Katrina, which he called “my catalyzing experience. I was 21 years old and eager to be involved with something important and meaningful.”
This led to signing up with AmeriCorps, where one of his assignments was with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. He went to work for Habitat after completing his service, then picked up a degree in Political Science from Tulane University. This led to a stint in Colorado with Teach for America.
“All of these experiences helped me develop the model for unCommon Construction,” Frumin recounted. He returned to New Orleans over Labor Day weekend in 2014, and incorporated the organization the following April.
Frumin’s first step was to begin developing partnerships with local high schools, particularly those that were looking for internship opportunities for their students. To build interest, he initially went into the classrooms with hammers, nails and 2x4s and conducted “hammer races”, with students competing to drive the nails in the fastest.
This enabled Frumin to assemble his first construction teams, an approach that by now has proven itself repeatedly. Many of the participants work for two or three semesters, typically earning between $800 and $1000 per semester. In addition to introducing young people to a viable trade, unCommon Construction includes curricular aspects that teach teamwork, leadership, and vital career skills such as resume writing and creating online profiles.
The students also have the opportunity to earn bonuses: participants with an attendance rate of 85% or higher earn an “equity award”, where the organization matches the students’ earnings at a rate of fifty cents on the dollar.
In terms of how the participants spend their earnings, Frumin reported that “forty percent use them for continuing education or obtaining work credentials. Thirty percent use them for expenses relating to joining the workforce, like tools. Twenty percent use them for other things like contributing to rent or grocery money for their families.”
On the other side of the equation, the houses built by unCommon Construction are sold to generate a substantial portion of the revenue needed to sustain the program. Sometimes the organization acts as the developer, purchasing the lot, building the house and then selling it on the open market. In other instances, a private individual or a community organization may hire them to build the structure.
While this approach provides vital income, Frumin estimated that it still only covers about two-thirds of the organization’s expenses, with donations making up the difference. Unlike a typical construction firm, unCommon Construction provides transportation, meals, tools, and workplace attire for the students, along with the additional training. All of this requires more staff and creates more expenses.
However, the benefits to the students go well beyond simply learning the construction trade.
“Students who get these real-world learning experiences are less likely to drop out, will perform better in academics, and are more likely to continue their education beyond high school,” Frumin stated.
This aligns with what might be unCommon Construction’s ultimate goal, training young people not just to join the workforce but lead in the workforce. “We put them in a better position to be successful in life,” Frumin concluded.