Steve Shelton was 12 when he learned to mix mortar with a hoe.
His Penn Hills neighbor Joe Johnson taught him to lay brick and before he knew it, he was piling into an old Chevy with several hoes and riding to Greensburg to work for a contractor named Cappy who was building brick houses there.
“Everyone worked for Cappy back in those days,” said Shelton. “He was the ultimate mentor."
Opportunities to learn under master craftspeople these days are rare, he says. Schools no longer teach the trades, which is unfortunate. But the region's ubiquitous stone-and-brick buildings require ongoing care. Just look at the Cathedral of Learning landmark featuring some of the finest craftsmanship in the world.
“There was so much dignity in those days,” said Shelton, 55, who has run his own construction firm for 13 of the 43 years he's been in the business. “We've got self-driving Ubers, and that’s OK, but nothing will replace what you can do with your hands. I want to bring it all back.”
He turned that sentiment into action in 2009 with the help of nearly a dozen nonprofit sponsors, including the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. He founded the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh in the basement of Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg. That early effort snowballed as more students found their way to the class, many struggling to overcome personal difficulties; others looking to restart their lives after prison.
Six months ago, TIP expanded and moved into an 11,000-square-foot space in an old Westinghouse building owned by Bridgeway Capital on Susquehanna Street in Homewood. The school's 10-week program gives men and women the tools to pursue a career in the trade.
They start by learning to spread mortar and move on to laying and feathering technique, says Shelton. Before long, the students have built brick walls with intricate patterns. Shelton is particularly proud of the former inmates who've turned their lives around.
While the recidivism rate for former prisoners across the state is 22.5 percent, only 4.5 percent of those that go through the TIP program land back in jail, according to Shelton.
The program saves taxpayers nearly $6 million a year, adds Kit Mueller, director of strategic and community development at TIP. The taxpayer cost for one inmate per year is $40,000 to $50,000 while the TIP cost per student is $7,500.
“We’re putting people back on their feet with a trade,” Mueller said. “You turn them into taxpayers who will spend their paycheck in the community.”
The program also addresses a critical shortage of construction workers, a vexing problem both locally and nationally. Two-thirds of all contractors across the country can’t find enough qualified craft workers and specialty contractors to meet demand, according to the Associated General Contractors of America and the National Association of Home Builders.
TIP has 20 business partners who hire graduates and more are lining up, says Mueller. Students with strong leadership skills have expressed an interest in opening up their companies.
The institute also works with Carnegie Mellon University's Project RE and is talking to the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District about a future partnership.
“We’re just getting started,” said Shelton. “This is a huge inflection point. It’s about a lot more than masonry.”