MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Stephen Ferreira is a student at East High and has dreams of being a pilot — a dream he’s already achieving in high school.

“I was originally going to go to Central, but then I found out there was an aviation program here,” Ferreira said.

East High School’s aviation program offers hands-on training to students interested in aviation careers. Stephen enrolled his freshman year, and by the time he was a junior, he earned his private pilot’s license.

“Usually this step isn’t done until college, but it makes it so much simpler to get it done in high school,” Ferreira said.

The program falls under Memphis Shelby County Schools’ college, career and technical education, or CCTE for short. As the pandemic caused a major disruption in the workforce, the Memphis school system hopes programs like it can help fix the problem.

“We all know nationwide there is a shortage of skilled workers,” said Tanika Lester, who oversees CCTE. “Our students when they graduate, they have already earned industry recognized credentials.”

Lester said they prepare students for both college and a career. It’s kind of like vocational school, but with more options like engineering, computer science, agriculture, media, culinary arts and more.

The class of 2020 graduated into a labor market with an 18% unemployment rate for their age group, 16-24 years old. The U.S. Department of Labor went on to report young adults of color struggled the most to find work.

All the while, millions of people quit and switched jobs for better pay and benefits. More retired, some earlier than they wanted.

Many businesses say they are eager to fill the positions, but claim there’s a shortage of skilled applicants.

“I definitely think our programs could be the answer to the shortages,” Lester said.

She said industry partners have let them know what jobs they need to fill, so students can start preparing. She points to students like Abigail Cosme, who’s in the barbering program at Sheffield.

Abigail Cosme in the classroom

“I’m going to continue this and use this as a side job,” Cosme said.

Her teacher says Abigail just earned her master barber’s license.

“She can become her own boss as a master barber in a shop as well as own her own shop,” Sharon Wilson said.

It’s a big achievement that other students believe will make a difference.

“Definitely with the area we’re in and the things we grew up around, I feel like it’s important for people to find outlets instead of choosing the wrong path,” Siyus Gibson said.

More students are signing up for CCTE courses. Nearly twice as many signed up for advanced manufacturing last year compared to the 2017-2018 school year. More than 600 enrolled in agriculture last year, and 2,400 were in business management.

Hospitality and tourism has more than 800 students. STEM is seeing the same growth. Law and public safety is down students, but transportation has the most it’s ever had.

Lester said overall, enrollment is promising.

“They see they don’t have to necessarily go to college to be successful. The talk that we hear all the time is when students graduate they have all this debt. They have debt and sometimes can’t even find a job,” Lester said.

She said CCTE is just another option. She said the district is adapting to this new normal and so are companies.

Companies recognize they have to get inventive too, like offering more pay and creative perks. Some are even dropping four-year college degree requirements.

“I know CCTE is the answer to a lot of the problems,” Lester said.

The district said they plan on putting more emphasis on CCTE by creating more certification opportunities, updating facilities, expanding to middle and elementary students and developing more partnerships.