Southtown Construction provides job training and life skills
By Holly Whisler
“I am the youngest of 10 kids. We grew up in the projects of Springfield. My father was killed when I was teenager, and my mom raised us on public assistance and what she earned from her job as a waitress,” said Calvin Pitts succinctly. He doesn’t say this as an excuse or a statement to evoke sympathy or pity. Pitts clearly describes where he came from in order to establish perspective, credibility and the reasons for doing the work that he holds near and dear to his heart.
Pitts says he learned how to make choices by observing the choices made by others. After losing a cousin to the violence of the streets, he vowed to help others see that better choices were possible. He felt that even if he made only one life better, it would be worth the effort.
Pitts began his career as an electrician apprentice in 1999, but saw that even the hardest working apprentice was not guaranteed a job. Pitts said, “I saw the disparity, and I began to think of possible investments I could make that would help me survive if I were ever laid off.”
Once he became a journeyman electrician and his pay increased, he purchased his first investment property. As Pitts was working on his property, he would hire guys from the neighborhood to work alongside the professionals. “I could see they were learning,” he said, and this revelation was the inspiration behind the creation of Southtown Construction Training Program, a formal job training program where he serves as CEO and instructor.
Pitts partners with the Springfield Urban League, Ameren Illinois, Christian Ministry Network, the City of Springfield and other local organizations to teach underserved or underemployed men and women the basics of the building trades, along with the necessary soft skills to earn gainful employment.
In 2017, he purchased a building at 1122 South Grand East to hold classes and provide hands-on training before taking students to work on offsite projects. Pitts teaches official trades curricula along with other essentials such as how to read a tape measure, recognizing tools and knowing how to do basic math. Most recently he started teaching the Building Trades’ Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3) which is a comprehensive pre-apprenticeship training curriculum.
Soon, 20 students will get the opportunity to utilize their newly acquired skills as the City of Springfield has approved Pitts’ training program to rehab houses that were scheduled to be demolished.
Bobby Sawyer, a soon-to-be graduate, said he has learned so much in the program and knows this knowledge will open doors for him. Sawyer said, “Calvin taught us to be well-rounded,” noting that he was only interested in concrete work until he was able to learn about other trades. Sawyer said, “Once Calvin started teaching electricity, plumbing and carpentry, I became interested because I understood. Wiring seemed complicated, but he taught it in such a way that I was able to understand and learn.”
In terms of being well-rounded, learning the trades is only part of the deal. Many students come to the program without knowing how to present themselves in a professional situation. Sawyer said they learned interview skills and how to create a resume. “I feel confident I have what I need to get started,” said Sawyer. He also understands that what he accomplishes from here is completely up to him.
Lucas Jackson, a fellow student in the same class, said the program “means more to me than I can explain. I have gained knowledge, and that gives me power. The opportunities are endless. Calvin is a good instructor and a great man. He takes the time to make sure you understand.” Jackson is participating in an Ameren Illinois energy efficiency internship.
According to Jackson, the students also work on their attitudes. He said, “The thing that’s going to set you apart is your ability to control your behavior. You’re bound to have a bad day, but you need to show up and manage your attitude. Having a positive attitude shows unity.” Pitts emphasizes to his students that life is about the choices we make.
At least 100 students have graduated from Pitts’ program over the years. As for the future, he sees the need for a larger training center, and he would like to create partnerships state-wide so this type of training and development can take place in other cities.
“I would like to involve retirees or people who have a heart to give back,” he said. “I’ve worked with guys when they get out of prison and watched them grow into productive, tax paying citizens.”
Pitts says he begins his day with prayer and believes, “We need to share the gifts that God gave us. This program is a gift. And money can’t buy the bear hug you get from a man you’ve trained and his entire life has changed course because of it.”