Joe White leaned over the shoulder of a young man using a power saw to slice a hole into the wall of a garage.
"Careful, try not to ruin the insulation," he said. "What do you see?"
"Nothing," said construction apprentice Steaven Beasley after tearing away a square-shaped piece of drywall.
White shrugged. "Sometimes it goes that way. Sometimes you find something, sometimes you don't."
White is a construction teacher for YouthBuild, a Kern County Superintendent of Schools office program that helps high school dropouts earn diplomas while receiving paid, on-the-job training doing construction-related community service work.
Students in the first cohort have built a shade structure at California Living Museum and a snack bar for a Little League team in Arvin. They've also made extensive repairs to abandoned homes through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, which builds and restores houses for low-income families.
Last month, White and three students were making repairs to a Habitat house in Delano.
The incision in the garage was exploratory surgery after the crew found termite droppings. There weren't any obvious termites in the wall, it turned out, but the workers made a note to have a pest control company investigate further.
YouthBuild is funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and is open to anyone age 17 to 22 who is out of school and doesn't have a high school diploma.
The first cohort started four months ago. Seven of 13 students have completed the California High School Exit Exam and three are on track to graduate this summer.
There has been some attrition, White said, but that's to be expected given the target demographic.
"These are at-risk youth," he said. "They have a lot of challenges that keep them from getting to class. Family issues, pregnancies, transportation."
That's why each cohort starts off with a two-week "mental toughness boot camp" that functions as a mutual job interview for both sides to feel each other out.
Students receive information about the program and what will be expected of them, and do exercises designed to identify whether candidates can handle the physical demands of construction work.
The academic portion of the program continues for as long as it takes students to earn a diploma. The paid construction training lasts for six months, and there's job placement assistance at the end.
Graduates also receive a tool belt stocked with all the implements they'd need to work in an entry-level construction job.
Beasley, 22, was a senior when he dropped out of high school in 2009. His grandmother had died, and he just couldn't concentrate.
After a few years, however, he found it hard to get a job without a diploma.
"This has been working out well for me," said Beasley, who has a 1-year-old daughter. "I like construction. I like working with my hands, and I'm making enough money to support my daughter."
Beasley came to the program with some basic construction skills, having previously been in the California Conservation Corps.
Brothers Neil and Charles Oglesby started from scratch.
Now that he's been exposed to construction, Neil, 19, thinks it would be a good career for him.
"I love it," he said.
He's even finding the high school academic work easier this time around.
"A lot easier," he said. "I'm older now. More focused."
A West High School guidance counselor told 17-year-old Charles about YouthBuild when he told her he wanted to drop out of school. Charles went home immediately and told his brother that they should do the program together.
"It seemed like a good opportunity," he said, adding that his teachers have all been very patient with him.
"They tell us it's OK to make mistakes," he said. "You can learn from that and get better."
Habitat for Humanity and YouthBuild are a perfect marriage because Habitat is accustomed to working with volunteers who aren't skilled craftsmen, said Art Sexton, a construction supervisor for Habitat who has helped train the students.
"We do get skilled professionals every now and then, but most of the time it's bankers, homemakers, store clerks, whatever you can think of, coming out on a weekend -- all walks of life, all skill levels," he said.
Sexton said he's been pleasantly surprised by YouthBuild's first cohort.
"They've done an excellent job," he said. "Good attitudes, fast learners. I have no complaints."
And as an added bonus, the students are helping good causes as they learn, White said.
"It's really a win-win for everyone," he said.
Don Richardson is curator of animals for CALM, where YouthBuild students constructed a shade enclosure for the zoo's new bighorn sheep enclosure.
"It was certainly a vital addition to the enclosure, especially with the heat of the summer hitting us right now," he said. "The sheep are using it, believe me, and it helped tremendously to have free labor to build it.
"We rely heavily on volunteers and donations. We wouldn't be able to do some of these really important aspects of the facility without assistance."