Urban Boatbuilders: Building More than Boats

Urban Boatbuilders: Building More than Boats

When I walked into the workspace of the Urban Boatbuilders (UBB) Saint Paul, Minnesota, headquarters, I felt instantly at home.

Clamping together boat parts
Youths in the program not only build canoes but also use them.

Urban Boatbuilders began in 1995 with a goal of introducing youths to working with their hands as a path to employment. The early group had a contingent of woodworkers in their midst, so they decided to teach kids how to build boats from scratch. The journey had begun.

UBB in the 21st Century

Rowing handmade canoe on lake
Some get to experience a camping trip into Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Over the decades since, the goal of the program has grown while keeping true to its roots.

Recognizing that youths in general and especially low-income youths lack both the academic opportunities and workforce training to succeed, UBB developed a program to address those roadblocks. They now offer an apprenticeship program where they hire people 16 to 21 years old to work in the woodshop. They prioritize youths (roughly 50 per year) with barriers to employment. In addition to an hourly wage, the program offers merit-based advancement opportunities from junior apprentice to senior apprentice with some advancing to youth instructors.

Tying together parts of canoe hull
While individual needs are identified and addressed, the UBB apprentices work hard on their boatbuilding tasks.

The people in the program include some with various challenges: disabilities, chemical dependency, they may already be parents or have juvenile offenses, and the list goes on. So the staff focuses on building a positive community for the youths where they have opportunities to learn, grow and thrive.

The program has a highly individualized focus. What does that look like in the day-to-day of their apprenticeships? In addition to learning technical woodworking skills while building a boat, they also need to develop communication skills, learn how to manage their time and exercise personal and collaborative problem-solving. These are transferable skills for future employment.

Shaping boat parts across a form
Woodworking skills are learned at the same time that the group seeks to address specific challenges.

There is also instruction about topics like workplace etiquette and financial literacy. And all this and more is done in a supportive and positive social environment. It is a powerful way to help build individuals with confidence and teach agency while working within a community.

The mission of Urban Boatbuilders has been consistent: “To empower youths to succeed in work and life through woodworking and experimental learning.”

Making it Work

Tapping rivet in place in boat joint

When I visited the UBB space, I was hosted by Michael Wurth, their community engagement director. He wanted me to understand how strongly the staff work to individualize their program. If a youth needs a driver’s license, they help them with the process. If they want to improve their public speaking, the staff works with them. Things like filling out a job application and practicing interviewing skills are other target areas. If the youth sees an obstacle to their success, UBB is a resource for them. And it was clear to me that the staff are truly invested in each youth’s progress.

Expanded Program

Kid planing a board
Kids participating in UBB expanded in-school programs get a chance to learn new skills.

UBB also has a partnership program that brings woodworking and building to schools in the area. The classes have been well received and offer the experience of hands-on learning.

UBB is a non-profit organization funded through donations from individuals and corporations (Rockler Woodworking and Hardware among them). It is supported by volunteers in addition to their highly professional staff.

Setting out in a canoe with hand made frame

To see woodworking put to truly good work is inspiring. I was impressed and uplifted by the important work UBB is doing in our community.

If you’re inspired by this work, visit urbanboatbuilders.org to learn more and to offer support for these programs.

Posted in: