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VOL. 11 | NO. 25 | Saturday, June 23, 2018

Where the Jobs Are

How Memphis schools are rethinking career and technical education

By Bill Dries

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Out of more than 15,000 Shelby County Schools students who took some kind of career and technical education, or CTE, courses in the 2015-2016 academic year, only 1 percent – roughly 150 – completed those classes to get some kind of work certification.

“The data was really shocking,” SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson said of the basic finding the school system’s CTE task force released last year. Now that information is driving significant changes within the school system of 110,000 students.

“That’s really the best objective evidence as to whether somebody is work-ready,” Hopson said as the 2017-2018 school year ended in May. “They are going to increase that this year to 350 to 400, which is better, but still.”

In the gap between spring break and the end of the school year, SCS was upgrading and restoring some CTE classrooms at several schools as the system adds about 40 to 50 CTE courses that correspond to “pathways” – a narrower group of career and technical training programs based on available jobs in the Memphis economy and the areas likely to be growth areas for jobs.

“Things won’t really look a whole lot different next year because we’re doing this bridge year,” Hopson said of the academic year that begins in August. “We didn’t want to go in and gut stuff. So what we’re doing is just making sure that we are supporting kids who are already in programs that will be phased out. And then for new kids that are coming in, making sure that they get the classes that are connected to the path.”


The 2017 report is blunt about the state of career and technical education in a city whose leaders routinely talk about thousands of unfilled existing jobs and the need for career and job certification to be just as important as the pursuit of college degrees.

“Schools are offering multiple CTE courses, but have very few program completers – four courses in a sequence and graduates,” the report reads. “Based on course offerings, there is a lack of focus on pathways that are driven by economic demand and student career interest. The majority of students are in business and human services pathways, which is not aligned to labor market demands in manufacturing, architecture, health science, information technology and transportation.” 

The human services area includes fashion design, nutrition services, early childhood development, and cosmetology and barbering. Hopson says the cosmetology and barbering program is the most popular category within human services. 

Fourteen cosmetology classes were offered system-wide last year, though two or three are being eliminated in the coming year because of low enrollment. The prospect of losing more cosmetology classes has brought parents, students and teachers to school board meetings in recent months to complain.

“There’s never really been a serious consideration for just eliminating it altogether,” Hopson said.

New CTE spaces at Ridgeway High are among the push for more focused career and technical education pathways in Shelby County Schools. (Shelby County Schools)

SCS board member Stephanie Love is among the alumni of the cosmetology program.

“That is a business. That is entrepreneurship,” Love said during a board discussion in April. “There are children who have pretty much told us they are not going to college, ‘So what else is it we can do?’”

She also questioned the motives for deciding which programs are reduced or phased out and which ones become a priority.

“It seems that when we get to the majority of our African-American children, we tend to eliminate,” she said. “But for children of other races, we seem to find a way to make things happen.”

School board member Kevin Woods, who until recently was director of the federally funded Workforce Investment Network, said there is a “mandate” to follow the jobs in CTE.

WIN is among the organizations pushing for a better alignment of education within SCS and elsewhere to meet the job demand.

“This is the part where it starts to get a little bumpy, where it starts to impact adults and your email box may get full and we may get a little cold feet,” he said in response to Love. “Yet, I can find a barber on every corner.”

Woods said he wasn’t totally discounting Love’s argument that cosmetologists and barbers run their own businesses.

“But you walk into that field without health care (insurance),” he said. “What’s a hard decision is looking these kids in the eye, knowing they are in a program that does not lead to a job.”

The back and forth has been enough that Hopson slowed the transition last year to talk more about what the changes will include.

Those who complete cosmetology and barbering courses in high school often don’t have the certification they need to walk right into a job out of high school. And Hopson acknowledges that’s because of barriers in the structure of the program, even if students are able to stick to the pursuit.

“A kid may be in CTE and they would have a business class one year and a culinary arts class another year,” he said. “Those were good skills to have, but you are not staying in it long enough to truly master the craft.”

For barbering and cosmetology, it comes down to “seat time” – time working with actual clients.

“There are so many hours you have to actually practice. It’s almost impossible for a kid to have a full-time day at school and then get that seat time,” Hopson said. 

One solution might be a lab session on weekends to get the practical experience required for certification.

“It’s just disheartening when you’ve got these very talented kids and they would be great barbers and great cosmetologists,” he said. “But then, even after putting forth four years and learning their craft, they still have to go back and pay tuition to go to barber college or cosmetology school.”

There is also a transition for teachers of CTE pursuits that would be phased out over a period of several years.

“We want to honor the teachers who are in these roles right now. We don’t want to just throw anybody out,” Hopson said. “You could have been great at your craft for 30 years and you are an expert, but if you don’t meet the state licensure requirements, it creates challenges in terms of you being able to teach the class.”

New CTE spaces at Sheffield Career and Technical School are among the push for more focused career and technical education pathways in Shelby County Schools. (Shelby County Schools)

Meanwhile, Hopson could ask the school board for approval of CTE laboratories or centers at Whitehaven High and Overton High later this summer or in the fall.

“These are schools where there is already a high concentration of kids who are involved in CTE,” he said. “A lot of these kids, if we don’t have the right class, they have to get on a bus to a CTE center. And we’re trying to cut that back as much as possible because we’re talking about losing an hour and a half from instruction for travel back and forth.”


The task force that authored the 2017 report sent review teams to evaluate CTE programs at eight high schools SCS selected as representative of the entire district.

The review teams found “at least one program with either equipment out-of-date or safety issues or both,” at each of the high schools, according to the report. And five of the eight schools had programs that “did not have adequate technology available.”

Nostalgia for body shops, old-school shop classes and 1970s-era vo-tech (vocational-technical) centers also remains a constant feature of citizen comments at school board meetings. 

The images and ideas go back to a time when kids whose parents worked in factories were encouraged to take a job opportunity, even if it meant dropping out of high school and getting a GED later.

What some regard as the peak of vo-tech education was just ahead of the death of a large part of post-World War II manufacturing in Memphis – much of it in areas where schools stood in the shadows of the plants.

The school system – which was then Memphis City Schools – established vocational education centers at a handful of high schools.

“And when they did that, they didn’t have all of these academic standards and No Child Left Behind,” Hopson said.

The vo-tech programs at Northside High School – which closed two years ago, long after its auto body shop and printing shops were mothballed – were brought up by those opposed to the school’s closing. And Northside still looms large in the discussion about technical education, then and now.

Hopson says those facilities bore the brunt of school system budget cuts, including those in 2008 when the Memphis City Council dramatically cut SCS funding.

But other factors have been at play, too.

“I also think that the enrollment trends and patterns are so different now than they were 20 years ago,” Hopson said. “I remember when Northside had a full auto body shop in the school. But when you have 200 kids and you’ve got to over-allocate just to have basic courses, you can’t really afford it.”

Population shifts and courses that don’t align with job trends help to feed what Hopson acknowledges is a stigma. Three of the Republican contenders for Tennessee governor, Randy Boyd, Bill Lee and Diane Black, have been vocal about that as well.

Boyd is the former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and the force behind the Tennessee Promise program, while Lee owns a mechanical contracting firm in Franklin that employs 1,200. Both have talked of CTE centers on high school campuses or at least near them.

Black, a U.S. congresswoman who represents a mostly rural area east of Nashville, also talked about perceptions about technical training and education.

“I think we put too much emphasis on college,” she told a Memphis homebuilders group in February. “We’ve said everybody’s got to go to college, and if you don’t go to college, by the way, you are somehow not as worthy as somebody else who did go to college,” she said. “I run into people who are not equipped to go to college.”

Rhodes College president Marjorie Hass has said she understands the need for career and technical education. But she says the transition from technical schools to liberal arts colleges like Rhodes needs a lot of work to be a realistic move for many students.

She says liberal arts educations like the ones offered at Rhodes are also on the receiving end of some unfair criticism and have a role to play in a push for higher education matching the economy.

“The problems we face today – whether they are issues of climate change, whether they are issues of how our economy will thrive with the rise of artificial intelligence – any of those difficult problems, there is no single discipline that will have the answer to those,” she said in February. “You need to be able to think very broadly.”


Hopson and school system leaders are wrestling with the nuts and bolts of where to put CTE. “The sweet spot is probably somewhere in between really investing and really focusing like they did 20 years ago,” he said. “Or narrowing the focus and tailoring it and aligning it to where the jobs are likely to be.”

Even Moore Tech, Memphis’ oldest ongoing technical school, resists nostalgia, despite the Poplar Avenue location’s industrial look next to the old Tech High School campus.

Moore Tech, a nonprofit whose origins date back to the Great Depression, is not part of SCS.

Its wide windows in classrooms facing Poplar Avenue look in on spaces made for heavy machinery and large tools in jobs that were labor-intensive. 

Today the big spaces engulf clusters of students learning how to work on smaller machines that control larger ones. The schematics used aren’t diagrams of a single apparatus but diagrams of how one machine controls another – in general terms.

Moore Tech president Skip Redmond still remembers starting the job several years ago and cleaning out an area with an abundance of vacuum cleaners in various stages of disrepair or being cannibalized to repair other vacuums.

Consumers are more likely, because of the cost, to simply buy a new vacuum cleaner rather than have it repaired.

Moore Tech has benefited from federal Labor Department grants that have allowed it to upgrade its technology as leaders of medical device companies and the building trades advise on the hardware and expertise needed.

“In Moore Tech’s history, this is kind of a first for us,” Redmond said. “We’ve got more companies lined up to get students than we have students graduating. We desperately need quality students that are interested in immediately working, especially working without debt right after they get out of college.”

In many cases, he said, those students have already begun working in some role with the companies that will hire them after they graduate.

In an evolution of several years, there has been an either-or attitude at times toward where workforce training should take place – at schools or at the workplace.

Redmond said the answer is both.

“We’re going to train mechanics. But when they go to work for Acura, they are going to have to have specific training for that manufacturing company,” he said. “They need somebody that doesn’t have to start from scratch. … We not only teach them the technical skills but we teach them soft skills.”

That includes expecting they will pass a drug test before they are hired. Moore Tech does random drug testing on its students “basically to get them to understand,” Redmond said. 

“We don’t kick them out,” he said. “But we do allow them to understand that’s what the industries nowadays are doing. They need to understand what it takes to be employable.”

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