The Obama administration announced on Wednesday a $75 million round of grants for groups that teach construction skills to disadvantaged youths while they earn high school degrees or GEDs. But, in a twist, the program -- which has had federal backing since 1992 -- will for the first time this year offer training opportunities in fields beyond construction.

The additional offerings in fields like electrical appliance installation and heating and air conditioning systems are an acknowledgment of the ongoing weakness in construction, and a nod to the increasing emphasis in job training programs on quickly growing, well-paying fields.

"We know that, because we're going through hard times, to also push out areas that are growing," U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said on a call with reporters Wednesday.

As part of the program, called YouthBuild, the Department of Labor will give its annual pot of cash to 74 programs in 28 states and the District of Columbia, serving an estimated 5,000 young people. A full 24 of those programs do not focus on the traditional YouthBuild field of construction, but rather on other fields that are growing more quickly.

Solis announced the grants in Pawtucket, R.I., where the local non-profit Blackstone Valley Community Action Program will administer a $1.1 million grant. The leader of the group, Vincent Ceglie, said that the program's money will be used over three years to put 65 young Rhode Islanders to work building affordable housing. Many of the young people who will participate in the program would be at risk of never receiving a high school-equivalent degree.

"They certainly won't be operating a backhoe or any serious equipment like that, but they'll be learning all sorts of construction techniques," Ceglie said. "The biggest bang for the buck as far as human services programs is in education and job training. That offers the most potential for lifting people out of their circumstances."

Pawtucket is a place that has been hit hard by the ongoing unemployment crisis. Young Rhode Islanders between the ages of 16 and 24, the same age range that will be helped by YouthBuild, have an 18 percent joblessness rate, according to a June report. Nationwide, the numbers are equally stark, with 17.9 percent of young people looking for work unable to find it in July.

"There's truly a need," said Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, a Democrat.

According to the non-profit YouthBuild USA, which passes Department of Labor grants onto its affiliates, the program had a 78 percent completion rate in 2010. The average wage for those with jobs after completion was $9.20 an hour.

Finding any job at all can be difficult for some of the youths who go through the program without YouthBuild's construction certificate and the degree they earn. Eleven percent of program participants have been convicted of a felony, and their average reading level is in the 7th grade.

Young people are looking for jobs in a labor market that has reached historically unfriendly depths, as summer jobs dry up and older, more-experienced adults compete for even entry-level wages. Another obstacle: this year, the $50 million in additional funding that the Recovery Act gave to YouthBuild in the 2009 fiscal year is now gone.

"Every day about 7,000 high school students drop out across the country," Solis said. "Our dropout crisis risks America's competitiveness and our economic future."