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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Ground is broken Tuesday for the planned Chattanooga Construction Career Center, a new trade school. From left, state Rep. Esther Helton, Chattanooga State President Rebecca Ashford, Gov. Bill Lee, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Interim Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Nakia Towns, Chattanooga's Jermaine Freeman, Chamber of Commerce Vice President Charles Wood and AGC East Tennessee Chairman Nic Cornelison.

Seeing the groundbreaking Tuesday for an $8 million Chattanooga Construction Career Center for training building trades workers on the campus of the former Mary Garber elementary school in East Chattanooga was wonderful. We believe it is perhaps the most important groundbreaking our city and county has seen since those of the Volkswagen auto assembly plant and the Tennessee Aquarium.

Chattanooga and Hamilton County — and our teens and young adults — have needed this kind of concentrated career education locally since the 1991 closure of Kirkman Technical High School. Now our 11th and 12th graders who are not headed to college can learn sought-after building trades such as masonry, carpentry, welding and HVAC. And with the career center's connection to the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, the campus can also provide adult education for those beyond high school age.

The former elementary school will be refurbished and reequipped, and an outside area on the campus will be dedicated for hands-on construction learning. Further, as the school lies in the heart of Chattanooga near the former Harriett Tubman Homes housing site, it is on a regular public bus line — always a plus for students and parents.

The new school will make a natural extension of the vocational training at Sequoyah High School in Soddy-Daisy (which includes cosmetology, digital arts, machining and automotive skills) and of the Future Ready Institutes at various county schools that already teach robotics and medical/insurance skills among other disciplines.

This editorial page, along with the Free Press Editorial Page to our right, has been calling for just this kind of vocational school action since at least 2014. This training has been sorely needed here —not just for contractors looking for local workers but also for our children who need skills to earn a livable wage whether they eventually attend college or not.

The median pay for construction workers is nearly $18 an hour, and with the specializations that will be taught here, the rate rises upward of $25.50 an hour.

In at least one way, this effort mirrors some of the Future Ready Institutes: It draws direction and support from the industry for which it will grow workers.

Leslie Gower, CEO of AGC of East Tennessee, said the builders originally considered opening a 5,000-square-foot training center adjacent to their downtown office. But the county's vacant school was five-times-larger, offering many more classrooms and far more acreage.

"We shared our [original] concept of a construction career center with our county school system and, as it turns out, they were considering opening a new vocational school but wanted an industry partner to make it work," Gower said. "At the same time we approached Chattanooga State Community College and TCAT, and they were in the process of launching a new construction certification program."

Ultimately, the parties joined together to form a nonprofit to fund and operate the construction career center. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, the Hamilton County Schools superintendent and the president of the AGC serve as board members over the project.

"This is a great collaborative effort that started almost three years ago, and although we had a little bit of a pause because of the COVID pandemic, the reality is that in August of 2022 this training facility will be open," Coppinger said Tuesday. "This is something that our city and county have wanted for a long, long time and we've developed a great partnership with the Associated General Contractors who have a huge need for the talent this school will provide."

Coppinger had personally lobbied Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to provide the state's $2 million share of the project, which was matched equally by the city, county and private donors. Hamilton County schools donated the vacant school, which was built in 1954 and closed in 2002.

Lee, a master plumber and construction company owner in Williamson County who ran his own apprenticeship program to train over 1,000 construction workers, attended the groundbreaking and he praised the effort.

"On so many levels, this is a good project," Lee said. "It will give opportunity for Chattanoogans, both young and adult learners, to attain a skill and to go directly into the construction industry which is something that we desperately need."

When this new vocational school was announced in July, we sounded the trumpets. But seeing the actual groundbreaking, ceremonial though it may be, was especially gratifying: It isn't just words anymore; it is actually taking shape.

Bring on our new building and construction workforce center. We believe it will raise the trajectory for our county and for our children.

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