A Report from the Front: Close Reading This Year’s DOL YouthBuild Solicitation for Grant Applications (SGA)

We wrote the very first funded YouthBuild grant for a Southern California client in 1994 and have written funded YouthBuild proposals for virtually every funding round since, which means that we have an unusually nuanced perspective on changes over time.* We’ve noticed two big changes and one minor change in this year’s SGA: market labor market information (LMI) data is out, green construction skills training is out, and the SGA is less structured.

Why?

First, LMI data has been a prominent feature of every YouthBuild SGA since the program was transferred from HUD to DOL about ten years ago. Applicants were supposed to demonstrate that construction skills were in high demand in their area, usually using phantom data, since the LMI data provided by states—the only source for such info—lags the real market by at least a couple years.

Those of you who have been alive and reading any news in the period from 2009 – 2013 know that Bad Things happened to the housing market. Household formation dropped like my Manhattan off a rooftop bar,** housing prices plummeted, and developers stopped building new housing or rehabilitating existing housing. Some went bankrupt. Today’s labor market data probably indicates that there is little support for the need for more construction workers. Requiring data that won’t support need anywhere makes YouthBuild as a program look stupid, and as all political observers know the ideal way to avoid information that makes you look stupid is to pretend it doesn’t exist.

LMI data has always been dubious because no one has a crystal ball; macro data doesn’t tell you much. Forward projections rarely work, and as Nassim Taleb points out (in colorful language) in The Black Swan, no one knows what’s going to happen in markets, labor or otherwise. It’s inherently not possible to know.

Jobs are growing at the low end (in healthcare, service, etc.) and, to a lesser but real extent, the very high end (technology, engineering). But no one can really take a large number of low-income high school dropouts and get them ready to work for Facebook or build the next WhatsApp. Entry-level jobs in fast food or caring for old folks, however, don’t demand a lot of training.

Secondly, green construction training is missing. Training for so called “green jobs” and “green construction skills” first appeared in YouthBuild SGAs about five or six years ago, more or less corresponding with the start of the Obama administration and the Stimulus Bill. As best we can tell, nobody’s talking about green jobs after the A123 Battery debacle and the like, and “green jobs” were never well-defined; “green practices” make more sense, but they really mean energy efficiency, which has been around since the energy shocks of the mid 1970s: double or triple-paned windows, high-efficiency appliances, and perhaps most importantly multi-family housing.

As Edward Glaeser points out in Triumph of the City, multi-family housing is by far the greenest way to live by all sorts of metrics. I’m living in New York on the 22nd floor of an apartment building; because New York’s density means that public transportation works, I don’t own a car. No one lives a greener lifestyle than me (I enjoy patting myself on the back).

To tie points one and two together, I’ll note that Isaac lives in Downtown Santa Monica, where many new multifamily buildings are going up. He got to talking to a foreman on one of the projects, and the foreman said that the buildings aren’t even really built on-site anymore: components come in larger and larger pieces, and then they’re assembled like Tinker Toys. The real greening of those building isn’t happening on-site; it’s happening in distant factories. And these buildings just don’t require as many people to build because so much is done off-site.

In much of the U.S., the real need for housing choice and affordable housing starts at the regulatory level, not the worker level. Matt Yglesias’s The Rent is Too Damn High observes that, in many places, permitting and local development rules hold back affordable housing because they restrict supply in the face of growing demand. New York and Seattle need to be able to create new housing before they need more construction workers. The Federal government has limited control over local land-use practices.

Finally, the SGA’s narrative section is less structured than it used to be. This is mostly a grant wave. Any program narrative can be more structured or less structured. The more structured program narratives will say things like “2. Program Design” then “a. Education and Occupational Skills Training” and then “Factor one: The evidence that the type of academic instruction offered…” Less structured program narratives will say things like, “What’re you going to do once you get all those damn kids in a room?” and let the applicant bloviate as long or as short as the applicant wishes.

We tend to like the latter version better, both because it’s more fun to write and because the resulting proposal tends to be more fun to read. Funders, however, can’t resist meddling and directing, so they tend to like to tell applicants what to do.


* If I live long enough maybe I’ll write the very last YouthBuild funded grant application.

** It was an accident.

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