» Subscribe Today!
More of what you want to know.
The Daily News

Forgot your password?
TDN Services
Research millions of people and properties [+]
Monitor any person, property or company [+]

Skip Navigation LinksHome >
VOL. 9 | NO. 31 | Saturday, July 30, 2016

Blue-Collar High School

An emerging strategy for growing Memphis' middle class would change the role and length of high school

By Bill Dries

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()

For all of the changes in public education Memphis has seen in the past six years, there is at least one more big one still on the way.

And it is coming from the city’s post-recession economic development effort.

Basic ideas or even simple names for concepts have a difficult time breaking through this world of tortured acronyms, metrics and five-year plans. The structure of the effort is still new which adds even more complexity.

But here’s the concept without those identifiers for now:

For many Memphians, the barrier to education beyond high school isn’t ability. It is money.

So if high school can give those students training and certification to get a good-paying job that is a rung on a career ladder, those students are then able to go further in their education because the good-paying job gives them stability beyond just surviving and pays for the further education.

The job is a pathway to a career. But to do that, it can’t be just any job.


“At the end of the day, most of our systems in their original forms were never designed to really deal with students who were facing those kinds of barriers very successfully,” said Glen Fenter, president of the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, or GMACW.

“Most of the models assumed that students came fully prepared and fully resourced,” Fenter said. “Unfortunately that’s not the way of the world here in our region and it’s not the way of the world anywhere in the country.”

GMACW, as it is known, is the 18-month-old effort to build a pipeline for post-recession jobs in the region. It put together various parts of an effort that began as a reaction to the difficulty several high-profile companies that were lured to Memphis had in hiring locals. Companies like Electrolux, Mitsubishi and Blues City Brewing Co. struggled to find qualified workers.

Since that catch-up effort, the Greater Memphis Chamber has shifted its focus to attracting advanced manufacturing jobs to the area with the belief that logistics and distribution can take care of itself and remain a staple of the Memphis economy.

Broadening the base to advanced manufacturing is a part of the larger goal of Chamber president Phil Trenary to grow the city’s middle class. And that middle class is defined by income.

GMACW’s vice president of business services, John Churchill, a veteran of the rush to build a better jobs pipeline for the new economic development breakthroughs the city nearly lost, has spent this summer break training Shelby County Schools teachers in how to guide their students to career readiness.

The organization is seeking grants for machine work programs, connected to the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council, at the SCS Southwest Career Center and at Bartlett High School.

GMACW will be back in Nashville next year for a second try at funding from the Tennessee Legislature for a set of eight training sites in the region.

Changing the education systems to align them with today’s realities is a particularly challenging pivot in Memphis for several reasons.

Generations of blue collar, working-poor Memphians have a work ethic with a goal of holding the same job until they retire, are fired or are laid-off.

A new job doesn’t replace that. It’s a second or third job – none that by themselves pay enough to even survive much less make long-term plans like a career.


“For most of the open jobs that are here in the Memphis market it requires some training,” said Kevin Woods, executive director of the Workforce Investment Network, the federally funded Memphis-based training resource that covers Shelby and Fayette counties. “But what we also see as a big disconnect is many individuals are simply unaware of the open positions that are available.”

Woods is also a Shelby County Schools board member who recently voted with the board’s majority to close Northside High School, a north Memphis high school known in better times for its vocational education programs that kept the school at or near its capacity for 2,000 students in the 1970s and 1980s.

When that dropped to less than 300 students, those pushing to keep the school open talked of the need to return the programs to the school including its auto body shop and print shop.

“I do agree that we have to have those programs in our schools but they need to be aligned to the needs of industries, so that those individuals can matriculate through those programs and go on to earn a high-paying job,” Woods said.

Fenter had heard the same pleas to return the programs.

He says those programs were built on “low-tech labor models.”

“Those aren’t the models that our educational systems need to be propagating,” Fenter said. “We need to be preparing our students with career opportunities. And there are a myriad of new career opportunities in the technology arena today. They are very expensive to start and very expensive to maintain. The talent to teach in those programs is very expensive. But the returns are significant.”

GMACW is exploring a new high school model called a Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools – P-Tech – that IBM is advocating.

The P-Tech concept extends high school for two years beyond the senior year to a 13th and 14th grade with college-level courses introduced in the 10th grade for college credit. Students graduate from six-year high school with a diploma and an associate degree.

GMACW had an advance team in New York City to visit a P-TECH in late July with a look at another P-TECH planned for August.

Fenter calls it “a very different model” that crosses some funding lines already in transition in Tennessee as the Tennessee Board of Regents goes from governing colleges and universities outside the University of Tennessee system to governing community colleges and Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology.

“The model requires the state to look at funding the high schools and colleges very different than they do at the moment,” Fenter said. “At the end of the day, we think it has great promise and we’re very excited about it and are going to do everything we can to investigate it fully and find a way that it could be another great opportunity for our students in the community.”

Fenter spends a good amount of his time making a distinction between low-paying, dead-end low-tech jobs and jobs that are career starters that “require more education than a traditional high school model, but less education than a traditional four-year degree.”

“What we should be doing is creating models that take as much of the post-secondary education spectrum as we can and merge it with the last two years of high school, so that our students can actually graduate high school with an industry-recognized certification … that affords them the opportunity to go straight into the workplace in a career field.

“That does not mean they are trapped there,” Fenter argued. “It just means that the person’s got the ability to make a good wage coming out of high school, so that if they want to go on for that four-year degree they have the capacity to work while they are doing so and money is not the big issue it was going to be otherwise.”

But some critics see little difference in an education pointed toward any job out of high school.

It’s a theme that has surfaced repeatedly in calls for political change, including in the recent Black Lives Matter movement and the coalition forming around the most recent summer protests.

“The educational system only meets the needs of the available jobs,” said Catherine Lewis, one of the leaders of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens that began outlining priorities in July.

Lewis referred to it as a “stack, pack and pull economy” – the same description former Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash and 2015 Memphis Mayoral contender Harold Collins used.

Cash embraced a school system brand of “every child college bound” – saying he realized some children would not choose college but that it should be an option for them and their parents to choose – not the school system.

Lewis complained of “mechanical plantations and storehouses” and “money-hoarders who own them.”

“While salaries are intentionally kept low and benefits few, politicians and businessmen alike travel the planet lauding these low wages and few-benefits packages, encouraging others to come and take advantage of the citizenry,” she said. “These conditions that Memphis suffers will and must change.”

Fenter says the way to change that is on the way to high school graduation.

“Today coming out of high school, if I don’t have that skill set, if I don’t have the appropriate training already under my belt, I have no options coming out of high school,” he said. “I am going to be in a dead-end job. I’m going to be flipping burgers or mowing yards, which are fine jobs. But they’re not the jobs we want to have for the next 20 years and they are not going to pay us consistently enough money so we will have the resources to go get further education if that’s what we choose to do.”

Choosing to stay focused on those jobs requires a kind of political discipline city leaders have been short of in recent years.

When site selection consultants come calling and they are working for mystery clients outside the city’s specific economic development strategy, the number of jobs involved can prove too tempting to resist.

The best example was the Conduit Global call center in 2014 that promised 1,000 jobs, far above the 100-job threshold that most Memphis ventures offer.

The high turnover, low paying jobs are a textbook example of dead-end jobs.

City leaders not only went for them, they organized a festive celebration in the lobby of FedExForum for the announcement, including the presence of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

A year and a half later, Conduit had laid off 600 of the 700 workers it had hired. That essentially wiped out the net gain of 600 jobs Mayor A C Wharton had touted just a week earlier with the long-anticipated opening of Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid.

Fenter talks of entry-level jobs that are not the corner office the day after graduation.

“There are jobs all of us took in our early days that weren’t jobs that we wanted to do for the rest of our lives, but they prepared us for the jobs that came next,” he said. “Our unique opportunity, I think, for Memphis is that by changing what we are doing with students in high school, we can empower a significant percentage of our students coming out each year with true employment opportunities that are career oriented.”

PROPERTY SALES 38 38 12,796
MORTGAGES 27 27 8,030
BUILDING PERMITS 137 137 30,071
BANKRUPTCIES 44 44 6,108