How Teaching Ex-Cons How To Lay Brick Can Help Rebuild Their Lives
Seven or eight years ago, Stephen Shelton started worrying about the future.
It wasn’t just his own Pittsburgh-based construction company, but his entire industry.
Shelton had spent decades working in various trades — often as an electrician and brickmason — but as he looked around at fellow craftsmen, he realized many were getting old. Where was the next generation?
This story is part of Essential Pittsburgh, an ongoing series exploring how Pittsburgh lives, and how it's evolving.
It annoyed Shelton that high schools had ditched their trade programs. He hadn’t loved traditional schoolwork and had always been drawn to the wood and metal shops.
And Pittsburgh, where he lived, was a city built by tradesmen.
“You look at some of these cathedrals and these stone buildings and think, ‘Everything in this city’s made of masonry,’” said Shelton, sitting in his third floor office in the old Westinghouse building in Homewood.
“Back in the day when all of these buildings were brand new, these were the dudes that came over, they came over from Italy, from Poland, from Ireland. Those guys carried themselves with dignity. They were proud of being a tradesman.”
Today, kids like him don’t have a chance to learn the same trades in school.
“God created everybody to do something, and that means he created people to be carpenters, tile setters, plumbers, you name it,” he said. “But if you’ve never given the opportunity to do what it is God created you to do, you’re going to do something, even if it’s stupid.”
And doing something stupid can lead to prison time. Shelton made a simple plan: Get young men and women off the streets, teach them how to lay brick and get them jobs.
Hosanna House community center in Wilkinsburg offered Shelton a 1,000-square-foot former boiler room, so he bought some bricks and mortar and found a group of students. In 2009, the first iteration of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh opened its doors.
Brick by brick
The Trade Institute has been through a few evolutions since it opened, but the same basic model still holds today: Over 10 weeks, the school teaches the basics of masonry — mixing mortar, simple bricklaying, and later, more complex patterns and cement blocking. Students advance at their own pace, and since the program offers rolling admissions, they are all working at different levels.
In August, Brandon Chandler, a 32-year-old from Coraopolis, was in his eighth week of the program. Only a few months earlier, he’d been released from federal prison after finishing up a seven-and-a-half year term on drug charges. Chandler was determined to chart a new course and found his way to the Trade Institute, which moved to Homewood in 2015.
He’d passed the first few skills tests and advanced to more complicated brickwork.
“What I’m building right now is a wall with an arc in it, with two pillars on the side,” he said.
Nearby, a photo lay pinned of a former student standing next to a finished arch. He looked at his own unfinished rendering.
“I put some soldiers in there — when the bricks go straight up and down, it’s called a soldier — and when there are ... three bricks stacked on top of each other next to (the soldiers), we call that a basket weave.”
Chandler eased his trowel across an ash-stained brick, pressing the gloppy, gray mud — a cheap, mortar-like blend of lime and sand — into its jagged edges.
“This is buttering the brick,” he said. “You want to spread it evenly so when you put it up it will make a nice bond.”
He set the brick on the wall and eyed it.
“Right now, this brick isn’t all the way even,” he said. “I see it sunk a little bit, so I’m going to pick it back up. I didn’t even have enough mud in there to keep it even with the brick.”
Twenty feet away, Courtney McFeaters slowly lined another course of brick on a practice wall. The 38-year-old, who had recently served a sentence for identify theft and credit-card fraud, was in her second week of the program, but said she was picking it up quickly.
“The hands-on part of it is what I like,” she said. “I like to build something and look at it and be like, ‘Hey, I did that. That’s my work.’ That’s what excites me about it, and the job opportunities that come out of it. They’re always going to need masons; they’re always going to need bricklayers. It’s like an industry that will never die.”
A course correction
Shelton originally thought he’d be able to teach his students how to lay brick, get them interviews and watch them succeed. He quickly realized he was wrong. Life kept getting in the way.
“(A person) can’t go into the prison system at 18 years old after getting busted selling dope or guns or whatever you got busted for and ... do 10 years,” he said, “and (us) expect them to have it together enough to just walk back into society and get a job, transportation, housing, food and everything else that they need to put life back together.”
So he hired a job counselor and social workers. Now, each student gets an hour of counseling a week, and every morning starts with the group sitting in a circle talking about the issues they are facing and how they’re working through them.
Shelton and Trade Institute backers herald the program as a great investment, boasting a one-year re-incarceration rate of 4 percent, compared to the state’s average of around 22 percent.
They’ve found backers in local philanthropic groups like the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation, and have started a partnership with Construction Junction and Carnegie Mellon University called Project RE. The program pairs Trade Institute grads and CMU design students to find new ways to reuse old construction materials.
And though the Trade Institute’s main program teaches bricklaying, Shelton and his team try to identify students with different skills and steer them into the right type of trade.
“Some guys come in here and pick up a trowel and in two days they're laying brick, so those guys are getting jobs in masonry,” Shelton said. “You get the really detailed young men and women, and we can get them jobs as being a tile setter apprentice, a painter apprentice, a trim carpenter apprentice.”
This month, Chandler graduated and started a job as a cement block laborer. Sure, it might be at the bottom of the ladder, but Shelton believes many of his students will eventually be running their own businesses.
“There’s a whole lot of entrepreneurs sitting in jail; they’re just selling the wrong stuff,” he said. “We have a guy who was selling a million dollars a year in dope. Surely the guy can run a small business. Maybe even a large one.”
90.5 WESA producer Katie Blackley and multimedia editor Megan Harris contributed to this report.