Tired of working retail and warehouse gigs, Leo Ochoa began to take greater stock in the words of his father.
“My dad told me, do whatever you want, whatever you like.” Leo said. “Don’t try to get a job just for the sake of making money.”
What he wanted was to be hands on, working onsite, and creating solutions that help people. His heart was in the trades, perhaps guided a bit by his mom’s hope that someone in the family pursued a career in construction.
Leo looked at options for getting construction experience, but after graduating from high school and working various jobs during the height of COVID, he didn’t have the experience to jump into a construction position. He found his ticket to a new career with Portland YouthBuilders, which led him on a course to Habitat for Humanity.
Habitat for Humanity Portland Region partners with Portland YouthBuilders, or PYB, to provide onsite experience for their youth programs. PYB offers academic, career, and counseling development for youths interested in learning the trades. Leo enrolled in PYB’s Bridge Program, which provides high school graduates between the ages of 18 and 26 with intensive construction training to prepare them for the construction industry.
While he was paid a stipend during his training with PYB, he also worked part-time at a retail outlet for a phone service provider. Between the two obligations, he worked seven days a week, starting early in the morning and going until 8:30 or later at night.
“I pretty much never had a day off,” Leo said. “I got invited many times to go to lunch or go to dinner with some of the students that I met. But I’m telling them, ‘Sorry, I gotta go to work after this.’ So that’s where I started realizing that I really liked the trades work. I wanted to make that my whole day and then have my personal life afterward like everyone else.”
With PYB, Leo helped frame Building 8 at Habitat’s Foster Commons. It is work that both helps Habitat move forward on projects and supplies valuable onsite training for young construction workers. Leo worked with his fellow students for about a month at the build site, and the autumn days flew by. “It was hot,” he said. “But I wasn’t tired.”
He graduated from PYB in September, and at 22 was looking to start his new career. He started working for Habitat’s ReStore in Gresham — one of three ReStores in the Portland metro area that supports Habitat through the sale of donated furniture and home furnishings. It started as a job, but Leo quickly realized he liked working for a nonprofit, and specifically one that helps support Habitat’s work to build and repair affordable homes.
“I was really enjoying my job at the Restore,” Leo said. “I had a wonderful crew there. Everybody from top to bottom was always helpful.”
But when the crew leader position became available with Habitat, he had to follow his dream in the trades. It was a brief and chance conversation with Habitat’s director of construction that convinced him he should apply. He did, and with his experience with PYB, he got the job. Now he gets to come to work every day at Foster Commons and see the home he helped build with PYB, and continue the work on other homes still under construction.
“I’m just constantly being reminded of my goals by Habitat,” Leo said. “Do what you want to do. Don’t try to fake it. Because this is going to be your career.”
Leo’s career sights are set higher in the trades. He would like to get into electrical or HVAC work. In the meantime, he’s enjoying working onsite and outdoors, with volunteers and homeowners, daily — even though sometimes the homeowners make him a little nervous.
“This is their home!” he said. “In a way they’re my boss. So, while they’re looking up to me, I’m looking up to them. This is going to be someplace that they’re going to be for a long time. I want to make sure I leave it as perfect as I can.”