This article originally appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
As Chattanooga area builders struggle to find workers, about 200 high school students eyeing the construction trades Friday saw the industry in action at the Construction Career Center.
The center’s first career expo showcased plumbing, ironworking, heating and air conditioning, and many of the other building trades, said Leslie Gower, the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee’s chief executive.
Gower said there’s “a workforce crisis for sure” in the sector.
“It’s the No. 1 problem in construction,” she said in an interview at the center at 2225 Roanoke Ave. that opened a little more than a year ago.
Matt Jeffery, owner of Chattanooga Floor Care, said at the center that interested students don’t have to settle for a job, but they can build a career.
“It’s a career path, not just a job,” he said in an interview.
Labor is definitely hard to come by these days, Jeffery said, and there aren’t vocational schools where students can learn as in the past.
“This is a beautiful place to replenish the workforce,” he said.
The center is a collaborative effort located where there was an abandoned elementary school in East Chattanooga.
The former Mary Ann Garber School was a 68-year-old facility in such disarray the Hamilton County school system was able to use only half of the 28,000-square-foot building for storage.
The site experienced an $8.4 million renovation built with public and private funding to provide training in the high-demand building trades for high school students and adult learners.
High school students from East Ridge and Howard along with adults in the Tennessee College of Applied Technology program at Chattanooga State Community College took part in the center’s initiatives the first year, Gower said.
Brainerd High is being added, she said. Soon, any high school student in Hamilton County may come, though they’ll have to find transportation, Gower said.
Students take part in three hours of learning each day at the center, she said.
“The curriculum was designed by people from the construction industry,” Gower said.
In the first year, the center had a 100% placement rate, she said.
“That speaks to the need in the industry,” Gower said.
Next year, she expects about 100 high school students will take part in the center’s programs.
Julian Johnson, a 15-year-old at East Ridge High, said he participated in the expo because he’s interested in learning something new.
“I want to experience something I haven’t learned before,” he said in an interview after taking a few tries at laying brick.