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Gov. Bill Lee came to Memphis to announce a new certification program for construction jobs for Shelby County Schools students.

Gov. Bill Lee came to Memphis to announce a new certification program for construction jobs for Shelby County Schools students.

New Memphis program encourages more students to pursue careers in construction

About 200 more Memphis students will be able to work toward certification in construction jobs next year thanks to a two-year state grant and an additional curriculum announced Tuesday.

The after-school program, known as Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training, or PACT, is Gov. Bill Lee’s latest push to train more high school students to enter careers straight out of high school in areas such as masonry, carpentry, landscaping, painting, plumbing, and construction technology.

“I’ve long known that there is a shortage of those skilled workers because we have left that part of education out of our public school system for decades,” said Lee, who ran a similar training program out of his family business in Williamson County.

“They have giftings and skills that college kids don’t, and yet we do very little to direct paths for them in successful careers,” he added.

The program is meant to help bridge the gap between young people looking for work and companies that can’t fill construction jobs. Memphis has the nation’s highest rate of youth not working or in school. As more building developments spring up, some companies have even turned down projects because they don’t have enough workers, according to local media reports. Memphis was named one of the fastest growing markets in construction in 2017 by the Associated General Contractors of America.

“Understanding what this program is about really gives me as the president of a company in the building industry a huge sigh of relief,” said Jennifer Ransom of The Ransomed Group.

About 100 students at five high schools this year were certified in skills required for construction jobs, but Shelby County Schools hopes to dramatically increase that number through the new program, said Tanika Lester, the district’s manager of college and career technical education programs. About 2,400 students earned certifications across more than a dozen other career fields this year — more than double the district’s goal, Lester said.

Jennifer Ransom

Jennifer Ransom

Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

The curriculum for the new program, designed by the Home Builders Institute, is one of a few recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor to train high school students and other youth. A two-year $450,000 Tennessee Housing Development Agency startup grant will fund institute instructors at two high schools for about 200 students who come from schools across the district. Hands-on training from partner companies will be included.

The program comes as the Tennessee Department of Education has also pushed for districts to create job training programs in an effort to prepare more graduates for life after high school.

Supporters of increased career and technical education say years of emphasizing college for every student has forced some students on paths that may not be the best fit for them. It also has created a void in some industries, stunting the city’s economic growth, said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

“Let me be clear: Workforce development is the number one challenge in every city in the country with regard to economic development,” said Strickland. “By offering this type of training, we’re giving hope to people not interested in the traditional four-year college track but they really want to work with their hands and make a good living.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris gave the example of his father, who got training as an HVAC technician through vocational education decades ago through public schools and was able to financially support his family alongside his wife, a teacher.

“We need more students to get vo-tech educational opportunities. We produce thousands of graduates each year who can and should have viable job opportunities and livable wages,” Harris said.

But others, such as former school board member Kenneth Whalum, criticize such programs as a “fringe” approach to addressing core issues in preparing students for graduation.

“Nobody could be anti-construction jobs or any kind of jobs… [but] I still believe that it’s too little too late because it won’t reach a critical mass of kids who need to be rescued from poverty,” he said.

Shelby County Schools includes more than 100,000 students, most of whom come from families living in poverty. The program is expected to train to 800 students in its third year.

Career and technical education was the first education initiative announced by Lee, who is less than six months into his first term as governor. The grant program, called the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education, encourages partnerships between schools and businesses to create apprenticeship and dual enrollment courses. Grant applications are expected to open later this year.

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