Building Trade Education

Building Trade Education

Construction Career Center Turns One

Leslie Gower, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee (AGC East TN), knew years ago that the industry faced a looming crisis. People were aging out of construction trades, and young people were no longer entering the field. Through diligent effort and intentional partnerships she welcomed a standing room only crowd in October 2022 to open the Construction Career Center (CCC) in Chattanooga’s Avondale neighborhood. Now entering its second academic year, Gower and her colleagues are reflecting on the successes and challenges of the innovative program.

“Our key metric for success is to place 100 percent of our graduates in a career or continued education in a construction career path,” Gower says. “I believe that goals should be aspirational, and we are thrilled to have met that goal year one. It’s a testament to our students, faculty, and partners including Hamilton County Schools, Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) at Chattanooga State, and the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee.”

Build a Career

The Construction Career Center features an innovative educational model. Unlike other vocational models, the CCC is open to students in high school as well as adult learners. The first high school class included 37 high school juniors and seniors from The Howard School and East Ridge High School. Every senior who graduated chose to continue their education in the adult TCAT program.

“We want high school students to take advantage of the credits they earn by transferring into the Chattanooga State TCAT programming,” Gower explains. “Doing so positions them to learn skills essential to grow into a well-paid career.”

Salaries for seasoned carpenters, electricians, plumbers, welders, and painters range from around $50,000 to $70,000. CCC graduates and work-based learning students are currently employed at an average of $18.50 per hour, with high school graduates securing entry-level positions at around $16 per hour. 

Susan Cowden, Director of Workforce Development and Facility Manager, helps students prepare for interviews, communicates with employers, and offers guidance to students as they encounter challenges on the job. 

“We are placing students as field interns, installers, and even in project management training roles,” Cowden says. “For students who go on to Chattanooga State for an associate’s degree, we’re able to help them secure work-based learning while they’re still in school.” 

Graduates of both programs have great promise and the CCC curriculum prepares them for work with credentials designed by the National Center for Construction Education and Research. Cowden and Gower say they’re learning that students need additional support as they transition into the workplace. 

Once working, students sometimes have challenges with communication and interpersonal skills. While previous generations of building tradespeople typically had a relative in the field who could help new workers acclimate, CCC graduates are often the first in their families to experience the regimented culture of a job site. As the school evolves, CCC leaders are exploring ways to help alumni build relationships to sustain them in the field. 

Community Networking

The energy in the CCC at its grand opening hasn’t let up. Every week building industry professionals host gatherings in the community space, and students are able to interact with future employers on a regular basis. 

“Our students were nervous after the grand opening – they’ve experienced many community initiatives where interest and support disappear after a ribbon is cut,” Gower says. “Here, something is always happening, and that means a lot to them.”

Cowden encourages students to take advantage of the networking opportunities the numerous events offer. 

“We want to expose students to all of the trades and let them figure out what they like. It’s important that a student can meet people working in the trades that interest them,” she says

Operational Growth and Change

The Construction Career Center is on track to serve 149 high school students and 60 adult students annually by 2026. Already, the TCAT program for adults has a waiting list and the City of Chattanooga has donated land for future expansion. As the student population grows, the CCC is committed to enrolling at least 50 percent of high school students from priority schools (the current class is 100% from priority schools). Center leaders are in close communication with Hamilton County Schools to solve transportation challenges, add instructors, and expand prerequisite training to Brainerd High School. 

“In just one year, the Construction Career Center has become a hub for the community,” Gower says. “We are improving the quality and quantity of the construction workforce pipeline, creating lucrative career pathways to end generational poverty, and strengthening the relationship between employers and educators. We’ve learned a lot in the last year and look forward to continued community support and partnerships to help this program achieve its full potential.”

Learn more about the Construction Career Center at