How One High School’s Manufacturing Class is Being Recreated Across Alabama

The curriculum starts with the core skills from the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

Tripp Marshall serves as Brookwood High School CTE principal, leading the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, school’s manufacturing program. (Montgomery Advertiser)

Alabama’s unemployment rate currently sits at the lowest number in state history: 2.2%. 

But with just 51,445 unemployed workers in the state, according to the most recent data from the Alabama Department of Labor, there are still about 126,346 open jobs in Alabama. 

Placing those numbers beside Alabama’s mediocre population growth data (4.82% growth since 2020), it’s clear that Alabama won’t likely be able to fill all of those openings with unemployed Alabamians or transplants from other states. 

Instead, some experts say the state should look inwards. Specifically, the Alabama Workforce Council suggested in a report earlier this year that officials should turn to their schools.

In West Alabama, that is exactly what some Tuscaloosa leaders have been focused on since 2017: connecting education and industry to directly prepare students for the workforce while they’re still in high school. 

A partnership between the Tuscaloosa County School System, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, the nonprofit West Alabama Works and YouScience Aptitude & Career Discovery created a pilot program in modern manufacturing within Brookwood High School that has since been replicated in 24 schools across Alabama. 

It’s built around what they call modern manufacturing career and technical education (CTE), and across schools, the program educated nearly 400 students in the 2022-2023 school year.

“The success of this program really goes into the industry,” Brookwood CTE Principal Tripp Marshall said. “Our center is a lot different than most high schools, I’d say, because we’re totally industry-driven. What we want to do here, what we want to become, what we want to grow our kids who are our products into is specifically industry-driven into what they need.” 

What students need to learn

Even though Brookwood is a blue collar town like many others in Alabama, Marshall said that when they started building out the program, he was shocked by how few technical skills kids have.

“Believe it or not, there are a lot of students in this generation of kids that do not know anything about tools,” he said. “That was the biggest crunch as far as what our industry needed, some kids that actually knew how to hold a hammer, and that’s what we gave them.”

The curriculum starts with the core skills from the National Center for Construction Education and Research: safety, hand and power tools, construction math, materials handling, construction drawings, rigging and employability. 

Then, students move on to train for certifications from the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council. These certifications have real-world value when students go to look for jobs upon graduation, and Marshall said the school also benefits from students earning them. 

The Alabama Department of Education tracks the credentials as career readiness indicators, or proof that the student possesses the minimum skills required for entry-level employment.

“These generalized skills for an industry, for construction, weigh in heavy favor for our industry partners because they realized that if these kids don’t have these skills, they’re going to spend a lot of time and money trying to train them,” Marshall said.

How Brookwood got students to buy into the program

In the first year that Brookwood High School’s manufacturing program was up and running out of its shiny, new career annex, there were only 16 students enrolled. 

The program was perfectly designed with the contributions of industry partners, but Marshall and other school administrators had to actually find enough students to go through it. That’s when they turned to YouScience, a company that specializes in connecting students with the industries for which they are best suited. 

“The research has found that if you connect a student with a career outcome of any kind that’s personalized to them as an individual, their academic engagement rates and their academic performance all skyrocket,” YouScience CEO and founder Edson Barton said. “It boils down to kind of Psychology 101. Everybody needs a purpose, and if you don’t have a purpose for what you’re doing, then you lose interest.”

Students at Brookwood take the YouScience career test in the ninth grade, and by examining their aptitudes, the results point students to specific career sets that they may never have considered before. 

Barton said the YouScience test works beyond the capabilities of a standard interest survey, so it avoids pigeonholing students based on stereotypes and internal biases. 

Thus, instead of questions like “Do you like woodworking?” or “Do you enjoy taking care of others?”, the YouScience test has students complete a series of brain games to demonstrate whether they have aptitudes for skills like idea generation or numerical reasoning. 

When Brookwood students show a propensity toward manufacturing or engineering, counselors suggest they enroll in the CTE program. After the first year of testing, about 75 students tested with those aptitudes, and the program grew from its initial 16 students to 55.

Now, as the program looks to begin its sixth year, 180 students plan to take CTE classes. 

A student’s perspective

Three years ago, current Brookwood senior Mariana Zapata was one of the students who tested strongly for manufacturing. Her guidance counselor suggested that she enroll in the CTE program, but because she had always planned to go into the medical field, Zapata was unsure. 

She needed an elective credit, though, so she decided to give the class a chance. 

“I didn’t know anything about manufacturing. Like I didn’t know what the term was or anything, until I started taking the class and then learned that manufacturing is building and the processes of fabricating things,” Zapata said. “We would make projects, and we would work together in the classroom. It was more hands-on than any other class, so that’s what I really enjoyed about it.”

After her first year in the program, Mercedes-Benz offered Zapata a paid apprenticeship at its plant in Tuscaloosa. She spent her junior year working there three days a week, and it’s her summer job too. 

With the money Zapata earned at Mercedes, she was able to save up and buy her own car. 

“It took a while, but I was able to do it,” Zapata said. “I really enjoyed doing it and earned good money as a part-time job. I learned a lot about that industry that I wouldn’t have known if I’d never taken the class.”

While Zapata said she still plans to stick with her goal of pursuing a career as an ultrasound technician, she’s proud of the work she accomplished in the manufacturing program. She learned hard skills, helped get cars built and made enough money to achieve her goal. 

“It was an opportunity,” she said, “and I took advantage of it.”

This story was originally published in The Montgomery Advertiser

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