By Patrick Yeagle

Inside a nondescript brick building in Springfield’s South Town business district, a wall covered with clear acrylic instead of drywall illustrates various tools and electrical wiring standards. Between the wooden studs, next to lineman pliers and a conduit bender, are inspirational messages about leadership and discipline.

Calvin Pitts built the wall as a teaching aid inside his South Town Training Center, which he’s opening this year as a space dedicated to offering construction training for people who might not have any other opportunity for a career. It’s an expansion of work Pitts started four years ago, providing job training and a healthy dose of hope. Soon, his students will learn skills such as solar panel installation and radon testing and mitigation through partnerships with other Springfield organizations.

Pitts started his jobs training program in 2013 through the Springfield Urban League. The course uses the Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training (PACT) curriculum, a nationally recognized standard used in the building industry to teach “at-risk and underserved populations, including academically-challenged individuals.” Pitts says the PACT course gives trainees basic skills needed to compete for construction jobs.

“If you go in for an apprenticeship, and you have the ability to read a tape measure, identify tools or understand the safety practices of the construction industry, you’re ahead,” Pitts said. “Once a guy completes this, I’m going to know he’s ready. I’m not going to have to send him somewhere and just hope he works out.”

In addition to teaching trainees how to use tools and perform tasks like hanging siding, Pitts stresses “soft skills” such as proper dress, punctuality, positive attitude and teamwork. He says some of his trainees come from troubled pasts and lack the foundational skills needed for any workplace.

In contrast to some training programs which require participants to have a driver’s license and a high school diploma or equivalent degree, Pitts says participants in his program may start without those things but must earn them before passing the course.  Through a partnership with the Springfield-based Fishes and Loaves Outreach, a nonprofit focused on adult literacy, participants in the program will receive free tutoring twice per week at the South Town Training Center.

“We recognize the need to take that guy who may be ready for change but doesn’t necessarily have the minimum qualifications,” Pitts said. “That may not disqualify him, but it does add to his plan. You are going to have to make this a part of what you’re doing. Sometimes, they have the ability to be productive members of society; they just need someone to help them to that next step.”

For Pitts’ program, the next step is partnering with other Springfield organizations to provide real-world experience and potential employment. One such partnership is with API Solar of Springfield, which designs, sells and installs solar power systems. Ben Roy, CEO at API, says the partnership developed when API needed workers for a project at Springfield engineering firm Crawford, Murphy and Tilly.

“He found me guys from his program, and he was very like-minded,” Roy said. “It’s been a beautiful relationship. When he sends a guy, the guy is ready and knows what’s expected.”

The next phase of that project is slated to start in the spring, and Roy says Pitts will send an additional eight workers who are being trained in solar panel installation.

Roy says the partnership is especially timely because the solar power market is poised for strong growth in the coming years. He says that’s due to a couple of factors. One is the decreasing price of solar panels, which allows a much earlier break-even point for home owners’ costs and encourages more installations overall. Another factor is a new state law which provides funds for job training in sustainable energy industries, with a focus on low-income communities and other at-risk populations. Roy says his company is eager to build solar capacity owned by the same people who use the power – a concept known as “community solar.”

“If you can pull these individuals from the community and develop projects in their area,” Roy said, “that allows you to give them ownership of their futures.”

In addition to the solar installation training, Pitts has also partnered with SIU Center for Family Medicine in Springfield to train workers on radon testing and mitigation. Dr. Tracey Smith, co-director of population health integration and director of community outreach at SIU, is spearheading the program. Smith says she met Pitts through their mutual work in the Enos Park neighborhood.

“I’ve seen the great things Calvin has been able to do for people trying to get into the workforce,” Smith said. “I’ve always believed workforce development is one of the major keys when doing a community project.”

Smith says the radon training program is supported by an Illinois Emergency Management Agency grant awarded to SIU in October, and it will start as a pilot program in Enos Park. Smith says radon mitigation can cost between $800 and $1,500.

“For someone who is just barely sustaining themselves, there’s no reason to test for radon because they can’t afford to mitigate it,” she said.

State law prohibits the same company from doing both the testing and the mitigation in a home to prevent scams, so trainees in Pitts’ program will learn both halves of the industry.

Smith says the radon training initiative meets several needs by fixing dangerous conditions in low-income homes, providing a career path for workers and filling a need in the workforce for people trained in radon detection and mitigation.

“We’ve seen that traditional models of post-education don’t work for everyone,” Smith said. “We need to learn how to help people who don’t have vocational training sustain themselves. Being able to create a well-trained workforce is good for Illinois.”

For Pitts, a crucial part of the training is teaching self-respect to prevent destructive behaviors.
“Every man wants respect,” he said. “I want to instill in them that it’s better to put yourself in a position where respect is earned. You don’t have to be tough; you don’t have to draw pistols to make someone respect you. You can do something in 10 minutes that it can take the rest of your life to get out of. And you don’t have to make someone respect you. All you can control is how you respond.”

Pitts hopes that the outcome of his program extends beyond his trainees to their families, potentially changing the path of future generations as children see their parents build things and succeed.

“I don’t want to look at what you’ve done,” Pitts said. “I want to look at you as a person with potential and where you want to go from here. We’ll change the mindset of these people and give them new options. A lot of times, we do what we do because it’s all we know. We want to expose them to the potential that’s been lying dormant in their lives.”