Hands-on academy teaches Detroiters building trades

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tiscur Taylor was planning on taking a builders license course, but when she picked up her coursebook she found inside an application for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network’s Living Trades Academy.

Tiscur Taylor, right, and Allante Burr are two of the 10 participants chosen for Living Trades Academy nine-week program.

Her first thought: “This is just what I need.”

The 48-year-old Detroiter is a licensed practical nurse and owns rental property in the city. She said she got tired of relying on contractors who sometimes overestimated jobs or did shoddy work. She wanted to learn to do some things for herself.

“Ultimately, I would like to have my own business and restore homes,” she said. “Even if it’s something as small as plasterwork or renovation ... I want to teach women how to beautify their homes.”

Realizing the application was due the day she discovered it, Taylor rushed from her evening nursing job to her daughter’s home to submit her application before midnight.

Taylor was selected last month from 80 applicants to be one of 10 Detroiters chosen to participate in the hands-on nine-week program.

The Michigan Historic Preservation Network launched the pilot job training program Feb. 26 as a way to expand on its two-week courses that teach one skill, such as window repair, said Nancy Finegood, executive director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, a nonprofit based in Lansing.

Bryan J. Corley, top, and Steve Hicks work on a stairwell after removing stairs to a kitchen of a house in Detroit’s North End.

“We felt there was more of a need for skilled trades,” she said. “We wanted a well-rounded contractor, a contractor for general rehabs.”

The academy is among a number of programs that are working to fill the demand for qualified skilled trades workers, particularly in the city of Detroit.

The paid training program is taking place in a house and a building that was formerly a synagogue and later a church on King Street in the North End neighborhood.

The focus is on historic preservation. The house and the former church are considered living labs where participants are learning traditional building skills, including carpentry, plasterwork, masonry and steel window repair.

Both sites are in pretty bad shape, said Stephen Stier, program coordinator for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. The 1,350-square-foot house has large sections of missing plaster and the wood sash windows need repair. The church’s steel-frame windows are in poor shape, the brick walls are exposed and the floor is covered in plywood.

Phillis Judkins owns the house and church on King Street. The longtime area resident operates a neighborhood patrol out of the house and hopes to turn the church into a community center. Built in the mid-1920s the former synagogue was home to the B'nai Jacob congregation in what once was a Jewish neighborhood.

Judkins was introduced to the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and its efforts through a neighbor and a former acquaintance.

“I appreciate the idea and interest they have in the people learning how to do this,” she said. “It’s not only new stuff that we need. It’s to keep what we have.”

Stier said both properties need so much work that it all won’t be completed within a nine-week span that ends April 27. The focus is more so on teaching skills, rather than completing the job.

“We’re going to be complete as much as we can,” he said. “The whole project is for education.”

Instructor Joe Churches works with Bryan J. Corley and Mirio Avila on laying out stringers for a stairway they are constructing. The Michigan Historic Preservation Network has launched the Living Trades Academy, a nine-week pilot job training program that teaches unemployed and underemployed Detroiters traditional building trades through hands-on work in a vacant building in the North End neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan on March 7, 2018.

Instructors from several companies and organizations are providing the training, including Detroit Training Center and EcoWorks. So far, the students have had lessons on architecture, lead safety and they’ll learn from a plasterer how to plaster walls in a few rooms. They’ll also learn about fall prevention and running a small business.

Judkins said she hopes the work can continue with another group of students.

Finegood says that would depend on funding. The pilot program is funded through a number of organizations. The students earn $10 an hour.

“When this program proves to be successful, we can go to the funders and demonstrate the need,” Finegood said. “Hopefully, we can do another.”

Naim Edwards, 31, left his job as an environmental specialist with the city of Detroit to enroll in the program.

“Restoring houses in general was one of the main aspects of skilled trades I wanted to work specifically in,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in large construction sites like Little Caesars Arena or getting involved in building bridges or anything like that. I wanted to help create stability in people’s homes.”

Amy Swift knows what it’s like to reap the benefits of training through the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. Swift took a two-week course on wood window rehab in 2013 in Vermontville, Michigan. By the end of the year, she was doing solo work repairing windows for others.

“It was just me and my toolbox,” she said.

Swift started her Detroit-based company Building Hugger and expects to increase her staffing to 15 people within the next couple of months.

She said she expects the students in the nine-week program will benefit from the longer, wider range of training.

“This will give them a much bigger picture of tangible skills,” she said.


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN