In 2019, the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee asked its members to identify the most pressing problem they faced. Most said it was a lack of qualified workers.
In 2022, this once-urgent issue is now a full-blown workforce crisis, says AGC CEO Leslie Gower.
“For every five people leaving the industry, we have one person coming in,” she reports. “And the average age of a construction worker is 50 years.”
The need in rapidly growing Chattanooga and beyond is so great, Gower adds, that 40 of AGC’s more than 200 member companies told the association they could hire 358 employees today.
But where to find them with the U.S. as a whole and every major industry facing the same labor crisis?
A good place to start, Gower says, are local high schools, where students are contemplating their future and weighing options that include entering the workforce, going to college, joining the military and more.
“In the past, we told kids they have to get a four-year degree to be successful,” notes Gower. “We’ve done a terrible job in the construction industry of debunking that myth, even though there are jobs out there and you can make good money.”
To mine this rich vein of muscle and brain, AGC and several local partners are preparing to open the doors of a new facility that will offer youth and adults a path to employment in the construction industry.
The Construction Career Center is a workforce development complex that will teach the basics of vertical builds and enable graduates to claim one of the 358 jobs that need to be filled today and one of the even greater number of positions that will be open in the future, Gower says.
Located in the former Mary Ann Garber Elementary School on Roanoke Avenue, the facility has received a $7.8 million facelift and will house three partners under a single 30,000 square foot roof – Hamilton County Schools, Chattanooga State Community College and AGC.
HCS will bus students from The Howard School and East Ridge High School to the center for either the morning or afternoon portion of their school day. Gerald Harris, the former principal at Tyner Academy, will serve as principal and lead a staff that includes two construction certification teachers, a school administrator and an English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English teacher.
“Many of the kids who will be coming here are Spanish speaking; the second-highest demographic is African American,” says Gower, who’s also chair of the board of the center. “Construction typically attracts labor from rural areas, so reaching out to the inner city is new for us.”
Meanwhile, Chattanooga State will offer adult learning through its Tennessee College of Applied Technology program, and AGC will offer continuing education to construction professionals.
The home of the center is a single-story L-shaped structure. Each of the two wings will focus on a single discipline within vertical builds. (The center will not offer instruction in infrastructure, interstates and other construction disciplines.)
In the longer of the two wings, which the center named the C.A. “Red” Parks Structural Wing to honor the man who built the original building in 1954, students will receive hands-on instruction on the structural components of a building, such as flooring, windows, roofing and the other visible components.
In this wing, traditional classrooms are attached to spacious labs where students will apply what their instructors have taught them.
The center has dubbed the other wing the Lawson Electric MEP Wing. There, students will be trained on the mechanical, electrical and plumbing components of a building.
Although these elements are hidden behind surfaces in many buildings, builder T U Parks removed the drop ceiling at the center, allowing the shiny new HVAC ventilation, the freshly painted piping and the neatly wrapped wiring that runs along the corridors to remain exposed.
“Students need to see what the inside of a building looks like when they walk in here,” Gower explains.
The center’s staff and board also want to model the future of construction, so students will be able to note the building’s sustainability features, such as its environmentally-friendly HVAC system.
“We’re a carbon neutral building,” Gower says. “That made the construction more expensive than it would have been, but we found grants to help offset those costs.”
AGC’s members helped to guide the center’s holistic approach to learning. Instead of students learning only plumbing or only electrical, they’ll learn the basics of every trade.
“My members weren’t able to hire the people who were coming out of the existing educational program because there was no holistic approach to construction,” Gower says. “There were plumbing programs, but that was all they got.
“Since a lot of training in construction takes place on the job, our members asked us to give our kids a good understanding of how to build a skyscraper – how all the pieces fit together – and said they’d take it from there.”
When students from Howard School or East Ridge graduate, they’ll have more than a high school diploma, Gower says, they’ll also have 1,500 hours of construction certification, OSHA 10 certification, first aid and CPR training and work-based experience with one of AGC’s members, if desired.
Students will also have soft skills that will make them appealing to employers, Gower continues, including knowledge of how to behave on a job site.
This lesson will begin on the first day of class.
“We’ll expect students to be on time, wear their personal protective equipment, observe safety protocols and be respectful,” Gower says. “We sourced a lot of best practices from across the country and talked with our employers, who said, ‘This is who I’d hire.’”
To help students secure a position after graduation, AGC has hired a full-time workforce development person, Susan Cowden, the former deputy workforce development person for the State of Tennessee.
To help students understand the best way to spend their hard-earned wages, the center will also include financial literacy as part of the program. Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union will be providing this module.
“Because many of our kids are coming from underserved communities, they’ll be the highest earners in their families,” Gower says. “So what do you do when you’re 19 and you’re making $40,000 a year?”
One financial boon for students will be the cost of their education, which Tennessee Promise will generally cover, allowing many of them to attend classes for free and graduate without debt.
Although comprehensive, the center started as a modest idea at AGC, Gower says.
“We were looking at how we were telling people about the lucrative career path of construction and getting them into the pipeline,” she recalls. “We thought we needed to launch our own training program, so we decided to use the money from the sale of an old building we owned to buy a warehouse.”
When Dr. Bryan Johnson, the superintendent of HCS at the time, learned that AGC was going to invest in a new training program, he expressed an interested in partnering with the agency.
“He was looking for pathways for vocational training similar to Kirkman Technical High School back in the day and was interested in finding an industry partner that was willing to make an investment,” Gower adds.
(Kirkman Technical High School was located where AT&T Field and the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater are now. Kirkman started as Chattanooga Vocational School in 1928 and lasted until 1991.)
After the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce suggested the center use the Mary Ann Garber Elementary School, which HCS was using for storage, the association spoke with Chattanooga State president Dr. Rebecca Ashford and Dr. Jim Barrott, executive vice president of TCAT, about their institutions joining the endeavor.
“They wanted to resuscitate their construction certification program, which they’d shuttered during the economic downturn in 2008, but they didn’t have a facility for it,” Gower adds.
Gower credits former Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger with stitching together these disparate pieces into a cohesive and functional operation.
“Without Mayor Coppinger’s leadership, it wouldn’t have happened,” she says. “This was a passion project for him. He was intimately involved in bringing us together, finding funding and connecting us to the foundations.”
Coppinger was adamant about the curriculum being industry-led, meaning he believed construction workers should define the curriculum and then model their success by being present in the classroom.
To accommodate every partner, the partners created a 501(c)(3) composed of ACG, HCS and TCAT, as well as the Chamber, the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County and the State of Tennessee.
The nonprofit enabled the center to acquire the building and the surrounding properties from the city and receive donations from local foundations.
Three years after first speaking with Johnson, the center’s first class is in session at Chattanooga State, where 38 high school students are looking forward to moving to the new facility.
Gower says the center aims to reach 160 high school students and 40 adult students by year three. In the meantime, the city plans to donate land for a second phase and the center will add students from more local high schools, including Brainerd in 2023.
Gower says she’s anxious to see these students begin lucrative careers in construction and eventually make a positive economic impact on the city and county.
“When ACG started down this path, we weren’t thinking about the community impact it would have, we were focused on how we were going to impact the industry.
“But once we have 160 high school students and 40 adult learners coming through every year, how will that impact Chattanooga economically? This is an important avenue we’re creating for families.”