Greg McAdoo assumed his job prospects were going to be limited after he was released from jail. He had just served 15 years in federal prison for robbing a bank when he was 21 years old.
“I made some bad decisions,” McAdoo said. “When you have a criminal record, a lot of employers just look at you like a piece of paper.”
But in a few weeks, McAdoo, now 36, will graduate from the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh (TIP), where he learned construction skills that will ensure him a job in masonry, a field he never envisioned for himself.
“It’s artistic in a way, to watch something I created come to life,” he said. “It really gives me a lot of hope. Without this opportunity, I’d never be able to show I have something to offer.”
TIP teaches masonry and other building skills to people looking to turn their lives around. Eighty-three percent of its students have previously been incarcerated, and face serious barriers to traditional employment, says director of strategic and community development Kit Mueller.
“What we are trying to do is provide stability for people coming back into society,” he said.
Steve Shelton founded TIP in 2009 because he was frustrated by the lack of workers who could do simple masonry work. His plan was to try to train the next generation of masons and bricklayers in Pittsburgh, and he paired that mission with a desire to help people get back on their feet.
"It’s a very holistic approach to job retraining."
Pittsburgh’s philanthropic community has stepped up to help the institute grow, and in 2015, TIP moved from its humble beginnings in a 1,000-square-foot space in Wilkinsburg to a former Westinghouse Electric building in Homewood where the organization has 15,000 square feet for its students and programs.
“Today we have 11 apprentices in training and two entrepreneurs in training,” Shelton said.
Mueller says the formerly incarcerated students in TIP’s program are highly motivated to prove themselves. And while learning construction skills is the primary focus of the courses at TIP, Shelton realized early on that a lot of the students not only lacked job skills but didn’t have the support structure outside of school they needed to help them be successful.
So he added counselors and case workers to the program.
“We support the whole person,” Shelton said.
All students get mandatory weekly counseling, and a case worker is available to them the entire time they’re in the program. And everyone takes part in a morning circle, where they talk about what they hope to accomplish that day.
“It’s a very holistic approach to job retraining,” Mueller said. “A lot of the success these students are achieving now is due to the ancillary support they get.”
Despite the disadvantages its students deal with, after they go through its 10-week course, TIP’s job placement rate is close to 90 percent, according to Mueller.
“And these are good, living-wage jobs,” he noted. “These workers are in such demand because there’s a lack of people to do this skilled work. Employers are all screaming that they can’t find people who can pass a drug test, and can’t get people to show up to work.”
Courtney McFeaters, 39, who served time for credit card fraud and identity theft charges, is one of TIP’s success stories, thanks in part to the entrepreneurship training TIP added to its construction program.
McFeaters, one of a few women in the program, helped build the cafe suite in the TIP lobby that now houses First Course Cafe, of which she is the proprietor.
“Once I have a hammer in my hand and they see my work ethic, that’s all it takes,” she said of being a woman in the heavily male construction trade. Her hope is to open several more First Course shops around the Pittsburgh area in the next few years.
For those just coming out of prison or anyone else who needs a second chance, McFeaters says it’s important not just to learn a skill but to learn self-respect.
“When I came in here, I was lost and I was broken,” she said. “I didn’t have housing, and I was working part-time at McDonald’s. But doing work that I love and having the chance to be an entrepreneur has completed turned things around for me.”-30-
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