Constructive learning

Job-training program to improve lives and blight

click to enlarge Calvin Pitts, center in orange, stands with recent graduates of his construction training program during a ceremony at the NAACP headquarters in Springfield. - CREDIT: RACHEL OTWELL
Credit: Rachel Otwell
Calvin Pitts, center in orange, stands with recent graduates of his construction training program during a ceremony at the NAACP headquarters in Springfield.

In 2020, Black people made up 13.4% of the overall U.S. population, but only accounted for 8% of those considered construction laborers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 3% of construction managers were Black, according to the same data. A program in Springfield aims to diversify the field and the city is using CARES Act dollars – federal COVID-relief funds – to help the cause.

Springfield resident Bobby Sawyer, 27, said he first became interested in a construction career after his plans to pursue a political science degree were put on hold while he got married and had a baby. He was interested in finding a job working with concrete to help his wife fund her own education, but then through the Springfield Urban League he heard about Calvin Pitts and the Southtown Construction Training Program, which teaches students skills related to a variety of construction jobs, such as electrical and plumbing. Sawyer graduated from the training program earlier this year. He's now working with Pitts on construction jobs while he plans for a career with a union, maybe in pipe fitting or electrical work.

In addition to the construction training, Pitts instills soft skills in his students, "basic things – like not being late for work, or coming in early and staying later," said Sawyer. He said in high school he, like other students, was steered toward college, without the trades being presented as a viable career. Sawyer said the training Pitts offers can set people on track for careers that come with a living wage, health and pension benefits – jobs that can compete with opportunities for college graduates in terms of compensation.

More students will soon be joining Pitts via the job-training program funded with CARES Act money, allocated by the city. The funding, as the city submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is for $75,000 for a five-month training program for 20 individuals. Through the training program, the students will work on city-owned properties in need of renovation. A further $325,000 of COVID-19 relief funding is proposed for housing redevelopment, which would be used to purchase and renovate dilapidated houses and turn them into affordable housing. According to an email from Mayor Jim Langfelder, more details are still to come via an ordinance.

Sawyer said he would tell prospective students, "that it's a very good program to get into, especially for minorities, because Mr. Pitts fights for minorities to get into construction jobs."

Over at his headquarters for the training program on the east side of Springfield, Pitts gave a tour of his training room. On the wall, a mural depicts a raised Black fist holding a lightning bolt. The room includes weights so students can condition for the labor-intensive work. For students to practice, there's a model house along with electrical and solar panels. Pitts has been leading training since 2013 and has graduated more than 100 students.

Pitts said he was raised in poverty in Springfield housing projects and had a challenging upbringing. His father was killed while Pitts was a teenager and Pitts dropped out of high school. Drug dealing was a common way to survive for the people he was surrounded by. "Being able to interrupt those generational curses is one of the things I make my focus," said Pitts. "Statistically speaking, I should be locked up or dead now."

Pitts, who is also the state labor chair for the Illinois chapter of the NAACP, said the program includes mentoring. He works in the field with students and leads by example. Pitts uses the nationally-recognized Multi-Craft Core Curriculum, which has a focus on building diversity in the field and includes class time and hands-on training.

Pitts said students who participate in the city-partnered program will be compensated for the construction work they do as part of the curriculum. Pitts said he hopes the city funding and investment will help lead other supporters his way. "It's going to open more doors, more outlets."

The official start date for the job training program is yet to be determined, but Pitts said the goal is to begin the program within the next couple of months. 

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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