Career and technical programs help prepare Memphis students for jobs and could help ease labor shortages

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Stephen Ferreira is a student at East High and dreams of being a pilot – a dream he already achieved in high school.

“I was originally going to go to Central, but found out there was an aviation program here,” Ferreira said.

East High School‘s aviation program provides hands-on training for students interested in careers in aviation. Stephen enrolled in his freshman year, and by the time he was a junior, he earned his private pilot license.

“Usually this step isn’t done until middle school, but it’s so much easier to do it in high school,” Ferreira said.

The program falls under Memphis Shelby County Schools College, Vocational, and Technical Education, or CCTE for short. As the pandemic has caused a major disruption to the workforce, the Memphis school system hopes that programs like this can help address the issue.

“We all know there’s a shortage of skilled workers nationwide,” said Tanika Lester, who oversees the CCTE. “Our students when they graduate, they’ve already earned industry-recognized credentials.”

Lester said they prepare students for both college and a career. It’s kind of like a vocational school, but with more options like engineering, computer science, agriculture, media, culinary arts, and more.

The class of 2020 graduated in a labor market with an unemployment rate of 18% for their age bracket, 16-24. The US Department of Labor went on to report that young adults of color had the hardest time finding work.

During that time, millions of people quit and changed jobs for better pay and benefits. More retired, some sooner than they wanted.

Many companies say they are eager to fill positions, but say there is a shortage of qualified candidates.

“I really think our programs could be the answer to the shortages,” Lester said.

She said industry partners have let them know what jobs they need to fill, so students can start preparing. She points to students like Abigail Cosme, who is in the barber program at Sheffield.

Abigail Cosmo in class

“I’m going to go on and use this as a side job,” Cosme said.

Her teacher says Abigail just got her master barber license.

“She can become her own boss as a master barber in a store as well as own her own boutique,” Sharon Wilson said.

It’s a great achievement that other students say will make a difference.

“Certainly with the region we’re in and the things we grew up in, I think it’s important for people to find opportunities instead of choosing the wrong path,” said Siyus Gibson.

More and more students are enrolling in CCTE courses. Nearly twice as many people enrolled in advanced manufacturing last year compared to the 2017-2018 school year. More than 600 enrolled in agriculture last year and 2,400 in business management.

Hospitality and Tourism has more than 800 students. STEM is experiencing the same growth. Law and public safety are down among students, but transportation has the most it’s ever had.

Lester said overall the listing is promising.

“They see that they don’t necessarily need to go to college to be successful. The talk we hear all the time is that when students graduate, they have all this debt. They are in debt and sometimes can’t even find a job,” Lester said.

She said the CCTE is just another option. She said the neighborhood is adjusting to this new normal, and so are businesses.

Companies recognize that they also need to be inventive, such as offering more salary and creative perks. Some even drop the requirements of a four-year college degree.

“I know CCTE is the answer to a lot of problems,” Lester said.

The district said it plans to increase its focus on CCTE by creating more certification opportunities, upgrading facilities, expanding to elementary and middle school students, and developing more partnerships.

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