Trade Institute of Pittsburgh students serve the community as they prepare for building trades jobs

When the pandemic halted classroom instruction in the spring of 2020, the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh in Homewood instead assigned its masonry students to odd jobs in the surrounding neighborhood. The pivot represented one of many operational shifts ushered in by COVID-19, but it’s since become a staple for the vocational school, which serves as a pipeline for hard-to-fill jobs in the building trades.

“We started doing some trash pickup, some hardscaping, even [building] some retaining walls, just donating our time, kind of in the spirit of giving back to the community,” Maggie Beldecos, the Trade Institute’s chief operating officer, said. “And it was met with so much enthusiasm and positive response that we realized that we’d sort of touched on something.”

About a year ago, the Trade Institute partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh to turn the initiative into a formal program called Project Reach. Students have the option to volunteer on construction projects for Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. They have helped to build homes, restore brickwork, and make other renovations. And they’ve simultaneously developed skills that have become increasingly marketable, thanks to today’s home-building boom and anticipated federal spending on infrastructure.

In fact, although most Trade Institute students have previously been incarcerated or lack a high school diploma or GED, Beldecos said every graduate since 2021 has found a job that pays at least $18 an hour.

Kayla Thomas was hired as a bricklayer apprentice after completing an 11-week masonry course at the Trade Institute last summer. She said she felt prepared for the job, which pays about $21 an hour, after volunteering for Project Reach. She and her classmates laid the foundation for a single-family house that Habitat for Humanity built in Homewood.

“In a classroom, everything’s like textbook — there’s no curveballs thrown. There’s no, what if this happens? What am I supposed to do?” Thomas said. But with Project Reach, she was “able to go out in the field and see, oh, like there’s way more [to the job] than just laying brick or it is way more than just laying block. Like there’s so many things that come together before we even get to that part.”

Thomas said Project Reach taught her the importance of thinking ahead. For example, she remembered that she and her classmates had to make last-minute adjustments to the house foundation because their initial measurements were slightly off. She also learned to bring plenty of water for the summer heat and pack extra clothes for Pittsburgh’s changeable weather. And she gained a deeper understanding of the physical rigors of the work.

“We were in this little ditch, and it was just so hard to move around,” she said. “And [the instructor] was like, ‘Stop. Stop what you’re doing. You need to breathe and think about [how] you’re twisting your body the wrong way.’

“And … he showed us how to set ourselves to where it’s comfortable, where if you’ve got to move stuff around such as your mortarboard or your tools, move it to your advantage so you’re not moving your body around or taking extra steps that you do not have to take.”

Thomas now works for Cost Company, a masonry, stone, and restoration contractor based in Forest Hills. She said she has the potential to earn around $35 an hour after completing her apprenticeship in a few years.

Trade Institute students consistently find similar opportunities despite facing barriers to employment, according to school leaders. They said eight in every 10 enrollees have been incarcerated. One-third of the students reportedly struggle with homelessness, and more than half lack a high school diploma or GED.

Over the past decade, 600 graduates have found jobs that pay livable wages, Trade Institute data shows. Beldecos said the hands-on experience that students gain through Project Reach has further enhanced their employment prospects.

“They are there from soup to nuts, getting to work on basically a mini real-world project and everything that goes into the planning, the pricing, all the materials, all the tools they need,” she said. “And so they can then put that, and they do put that, in their portfolios that then we share with our employer partners so we can show them the tangible work that they have done.

“So they may be new to the trades, but they now, because of Project Reach, have real-world projects under their belt.”

Habitat for Humanity construction manager Dave Bash noted, too, that he’s served as a job reference for past participants.

“I got calls from a couple of companies, and I recommended [the students]. They just did a fantastic job,” he said.

And he added, “It really helped us because we benefit from people that are trying to learn. I mean, all of our houses … are all done by volunteers. This is a help for [the Trade Institute students], for them to help us to do that. It doesn’t really cost us anything. This is just a learning thing for them, which is great.”

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