Exceeding expectations is rewarding.
Seeing your work empower others – even better.
Dr. Nathan Lewis knows.
“There were some doubters on the front end when we launched the program in 2019,” Lewis recalled. “We had a few people tell us, ‘I don’t know how that’s going to work,’ or ‘I just don’t see this going well.’”
Fast forward just two years, and the Local Options and Opportunities Program (LOOP) coordinated by the Jackson-Madison County School System (JMCSS) in Tennessee, isn’t just working – it has a waiting list of students eager to participate.
“We began with about 25 participants in our first class,” said Lewis, who leads the LOOP initiative as JMCSS’s Career and Technical Education Director. “Over 100 students have applied for the upcoming year. We’re seeing this succeed.”
The LOOP’s work-based platform offers juniors and seniors the chance to earn academic credits and a paycheck while learning hands-on trade skills through employment with local companies. LOOP participants attend classes for half of the school day and work the other half.
Regions Bank has collaborated with Jackson-Madison schools for years, providing funding for library books and classroom materials. In 2021, Regions began sponsoring the LOOP as an extension of the bank’s support for workforce readiness programs. Regions awards two scholarships to students working in the school district’s maintenance department. Regions associates also teach financial education to help students learn to manage the income they’re earning.
“The health and growth of our community depend on the availability and quality of a strong workforce,” said Scott Beard, market executive for Regions Bank in Jackson. “By supporting job-training programs like the LOOP, we make Jackson an even more attractive place for employers looking to expand or even relocate here. And by teaching financial education, we can encourage students to think about the benefits of saving for the future and building long-term financial success.”
Lewis notes workforce availability was a key factor in the LOOP’s creation.
“We experienced challenges finding masons, carpenters and painters for our own school construction projects,” he said. “We thought, ‘If we can’t find them, maybe we can train them. Who’s doing that?’”
Turns out, no one was.
Now, thanks to the LOOP, Hunter Atwine and Landon Moore are working with and learning from Chris Johnson, Jackson-Madison’s maintenance supervisor, on projects allowing them to cultivate new skills.
“Hunter and Landon helped with a renovation project at Malesus Elementary School,” said Johnson. “This is a great program. I wish it would have been available when I was in high school.”
Atwine, whose plans include a career in welding, enjoys the variety the job provides.
“There are endless possibilities for me to learn something new,” he said.
The biggest project Atwine and Moore supported? Transforming the district’s board room. Updates included tearing out walls, electrical and steel work, and laying flooring. The room turned out so nicely, the district is now using it for additional meetings.
“People thought teenagers wouldn’t be interested or might not be able to help with that,” said Lewis. “But look what they did. And their work is something they’ll continue to see.”
That sense of pride is just one of many benefits.
“Beyond trade skills, the program allows students to practice communication and writing skills,” he said. “It also helps students realize what’s going to propel them in job interviews. Your resume may look the same as someone else’s, but did you send a thank-you note after the interview? Do you have a good handshake?”
The benefits continue after LOOP participants land the job.
“Our students discover the importance of being on time and working with a team,” Lewis said. “They are reminded that everyone has a boss.”
Lewis knows how important careers are in the skilled trades – not only for the people who hold those positions, but for their families and surrounding communities, too.
“For some reason, I was the one in my family who decided to go to college,” Lewis shared. “But I’ve always known there are multiple options. Four years of college is not the only option. The LOOP offers a good opportunity for students to be more well-rounded and become prepared for whatever is next for them.”
Beard, the market executive from Regions, believes valuable hands-on training and discipline learned through the LOOP will translate into long-term earning power.
“The LOOP reminds us there are educational programs besides college that can help students identify and develop unique skill sets,” said Beard. “The program also confirms there are good-paying, skilled trade careers that are in demand and provide tremendous options for building a living and, over time, supporting a family – right here at home. I think the benefit is not just for the student; it’s for Jackson and Madison County as more people discover the job opportunities that are right around the corner.”
With application numbers climbing, the talent pipeline is growing. More students are eager to explore what the LOOP has to offer.
No doubt about it.