Opinion: A prosperous career in Tennessee with no student debt required

Staff file photo / The exterior of Construction Career Center in Chattanooga is shown.
Staff file photo / The exterior of Construction Career Center in Chattanooga is shown.

The fanfare of high school graduation season is upon us with prom, graduation and hefty decisions on what the next chapter might hold. For many graduates, the future has a hazy lens. With ballooning college tuitions, high schoolers should know that there are other pathways to success: a high-paying job doesn't require a four-year college degree.

The construction industry is experiencing a boon in our state, and that means a wealth of jobs for all ages and all stages of careers. The math is simple — for every five trade and construction workers who will soon retire, only one apprentice is being trained to replace them. Across Tennessee, that adds up to a whopping 315,000 construction job opportunities on the horizon in the next few years.

This floodgate of economic development and opportunity is the result of the popularity of our state due to strong economic policies, a business-friendly environment and a high quality of life. In addition, renewed focus on infrastructure funding has kicked off a wave of new projects that will invest billions of dollars in repairing roads and bridges and funding new transportation projects. Gov. Bill Lee recently signed legislation that will invest an additional $3.3 billion in state funds to accommodate Tennessee's record growth while addressing traffic and infrastructure needs in rural and urban communities.

Here in Chattanooga, local leaders are partnering with educators to spread the word about how high school students and interested adults from all backgrounds can secure a high-paying career without accruing college debt.

We're well on our way to equipping the next generation. Last fall, the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee partnered with Hamilton County, Chattanooga and our state government — along with Hamilton County Schools, Chattanooga State, the Chattanooga Chamber and our Tennessee College of Applied Technology Chattanooga — to open the doors to our new Construction Career Center, an integrated vocational training hub in Chattanooga.

Hamilton County high school students can take advantage of a dual-enrollment program with Chattanooga State that enables them to graduate high school with at least five certifications in construction, work-based learning and career counseling. For adults who are looking to learn new skills or pursue continuing education, the Construction Career Center offers certification training, instruction and mentorship.

Our measure of success is bold: 100% placement in high-paying construction jobs or enrollment in a related education program.

Successful completion of these apprenticeship programs offers what few other jobs can offer — above average salaries, no college tuition bills and a paycheck on day one.

A skilled trade career path also offers unique job security as the construction industry is poised for sustained growth. These construction and infrastructure projects of today and tomorrow will enable a new generation of masons, welders, electricians, painters and surveyors among many other career paths.

Skilled trade jobs are the heartbeat and backbone of our East Tennessee community. From schools to roads to hospitals, the future health and prosperity of East Tennessee depend on how we rise to meet the infrastructure and business needs of tomorrow. Help us spread the word. Visit agcetn.org and constructioncareercentertn.com to learn more about educational and career opportunities in the trades.

Leslie Gower serves as the CEO of the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee and is a volunteer ex-officio board member of the nonprofit Go Build Tennessee.