By George F. Will | Columnist January 31, 2020
PITTSBURGH — In the 1940s, Steve Shelton’s grandfather dressed up — white shirt, tie, fedora — to take the streetcar to the steel mill where he would change into work clothes, and would shower before dressing up to return home. “There was,” Shelton says, “such dignity in the trades back then.”
There still is at the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh (TIP) that Shelton launched. There, in what used to be a Westinghouse Electric factory, some men, many in their 30s looking for their first legal jobs, and a few women learn to wield trowels and mortar, thereby deriving from bricklaying (and welding, carpentry and painting) a dignity they did not feel when they grew up on this city’s meanest streets, or when, for 85 percent of them, their incarcerations ended.
Shelton, 59, was 12 when he first was taken to a construction site. “I just wanted to build stuff,” so after enjoying two things in high school (wood shop, metal shop), serving in the Navy and working in the trades, he started a business “out of the trunk of my car.” Eventually, however, he wondered: “Where are all the young guys?” He saw: “Everyone was being pushed to college.” He thought: “Having guys 55 or 60 years old on top of scaffolding, laying bricks, is not sustainable.”
He knew there were guys like him “who want to work with their hands.” Many were coming out of jail. Shelton talked with churches and civic organizations, and eventually the local Mellon (banking) and Heinz (ketchup, etc.) foundations. One thing led to another, and to this: The abandoned factory — deindustrialization has upsides — has a floor covered with bricks, cinder blocks, tubs of mortar and people trying to get the hang of building things, and get on the bottom rung of the ladder of upward mobility.
Things were made in the factory in the 1920s when Pittsburgh, then America’s ninth-most- populous city (in 1920 it was just ahead of Los Angeles) made the nation’s steel ligaments. In 2020, builders are made in the factory. Pittsburgh, now 66th in population, has put aside smokestacks and remade itself around technology and health care. It has, however, a construction boom — partly a result of Pennsylvania’s fracking — and a shortage of workers in the building trades.
Shelton’s $1.4 million annual budget, from private and public sources, enables him and his staff “to take someone from nothing to a living wage in 10 weeks.” Cameron Meadows, TIP’s assistant masonry instructor, served 10 years for shooting someone in a bar fight, long before TIP changed his life. Shelton notes that when his human reclamation program prevents someone from spending 60 years in prison, costing Pennsylvania $50,000 a year, “I’ve saved taxpayers 3 million bucks.”
One in 38 American adults is incarcerated, on probation or on parole. Many former inmates return to communities where they had barely been connected to its constitutive units — families, schools, and civic, religious and commercial institutions. Reintegration — acquiring residences, driver’s licenses, bus passes, bank accounts, health care, child care, employment — can be bewildering, demoralizing and exhausting. Some of TIP’s trainees are “couch surfing” — moving from one residence to another, night by night. All receive financial counseling. And there are driving lessons in the factory’s parking lot.
But every morning at 8 a.m. — not 8:01, because, Shelton says, in construction, time is money — the trainees sit in the “gratitude circle.” There, each says something for which he or she is thankful. They all can mention this: 10 weeks — 340 hours — of free training. And a job on the horizon, sometimes a union job at $22.58 an hour.
To a person from a fractured family, a job says: Someone objectively values you — enough to pay you to spend eight hours a day adding value to a project. To a person fresh from prison, a job says: You are a welcomed, functioning part of the society that decided it had to put you in a cage for a while. To a person whose education conferred only rudimentary skills, a job says: You have risen from among the unskilled to the rank of craftsman.
An expert bricklayer’s virtuosity with a trowel and mortar — Shelton’s is magical — as he or she manipulates bricks with motions so fluid that the bricks seem weightless, has the elegance that characterizes all craftsmanship. The recidivism rate among formerly incarcerated Pennsylvanians is around 43 percent. The rate among Shelton’s former trainees is 9 percent.
It is an old saying that the devil fills idle hands. But not hands holding trowels.
George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. His latest book, “The Conservative Sensibility,” was released in June 2019.