Editors note: MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is kicking off Living Wage Week to reintroduce the people, companies and organizations who have made the commitment to pay a wage Memphians can actually live on. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was clear about his quest for economic justice, a message that gets perilously softened as years go by. But let’s be clear, economic issues were his focus at the end of his life: The city sanitation workers’ fight for fair pay and safe working conditions is what brought him Memphis where he was assassinated.
If you think adults in Memphis have a hard time finding work, just think of teens pressed to get trained for their first entry-level positions, then navigate the city’s broken transportation system getting to those jobs.
The Juice Plus+ Technical Training Center of the Boys & Girls Clubs, 902 Walker Ave., addresses this ever-present problem by connecting students with career-development opportunities that include everything from logistics, automotive and culinary training to classes in welding and information technology in partnership with Tech 901. The center also provides teens an opportunity to learn soft skills like resume writing, financial literacy and college test preparation.
The best part is students get paid during training: $8 an hour. Their earnings are non-taxed.
“The majority of our students live below the poverty line and face obstacles that would make most middle-class adults want to give up on life, quite frankly,” said Tiffanie Grier, South Memphis branch career development director. “We want students to get a living wage once they finish our program, and the goal is to connect them with living wage opportunities.”
Her concerns are valid. A just-released National Civil Rights Museum/University of Memphis report shows childhood poverty worsening for all children in Shelby County. Black children are four times more likely to be in poverty than whites. Blacks are two and a half times more likely to be living in poverty than whites in Shelby County.
Of 631 teens and young adults ages 16–24 served annually, 95 percent are black, and 60 percent are female. The Boys & Girls Club has long encouraged teens to graduate from high school, but Grier said the technical training center is aimed connecting the missing piece that is career planning.
Many public schools have taken “a lot of the trades out of the schools, and I think that’s when things got a lot worse, according to Grier. As a default, some schools focus on top performers, creating a disconnect for students who could benefit from more attention and meaningful vocational training.
Grier has observed that parents don’t always have the right know-how or experience to advise their children on a career path, either. So strategic partnerships and training opportunities help fill those gaps.
These students mean business
Surrounded by violence and gang activity, Keiona Ray remembers walking to Soulsville Charter School and dreaming of a better life. Active in the majorettes and cheerleading, she jumped at the chance to enroll in the culinary program a year ago. She’s now studying cosmetology at Tennessee College of Applied Technology, then plans to study business. Ray’s goal: Open a salon.
“The high school kids look up to me because I’m in college,” Ray said. “They ask me, ‘How is college life? How is this? How is that? We all grew up in South Memphis. We all know what it’s like to struggle.”
“In adulthood there are a lot of responsibilities, and I feel like if I can take care of it now,” Ray said. “Once I get older and be on my own, I won’t be so lost. Some teenagers, they’ll be 18 or 19 and be so quick to move out, and they don’t know a lot about being on their own.”
She’s also expanding her worldview, enjoying the journey.
“I’m so used to cooking fried chicken and pork chops, but when you’re in the culinary program, you expand the things that you cook,” Ray said. “We cook with different types of vegetables. Parsley! I’ve never heard of that until I came here. I learned that you can make your own cheese. With the catering program, we have dinners here so you can either be a server or cook in the back. I do a little bit of both.”
Training center alumnus Michael Grady is now an honors student at Tennessee State University. Grady, caught the entrepreneurial bug during his time at the training center, thanks to the mentoring he received and opportunities to lead. He started a fashion design business, which he balances with college classes.
“I learned a lot about marketing and networking,” Grady said. “You always have to know people, and the more people you know, the more assets you have. I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship, and the instructors really helped me with that.”
Grier said she knows getting students through the door is just the first step to finding a pathway out of poverty. Students fast appreciate the stability of earning an income and pride of developing a work ethic.
“Most students come at first because they want a check,” Grier said. “It’s our job that once they get here … we can build relationships and empower them and make them want to come back and learn what we have to offer.”
How it works
Training center participants check in after school and get a $100 a month incentive at the beginning of each month. If they take mentoring to heart and follow through on securing internships, college scholarships and college acceptance letters, they get bonuses ranging from $20-$50. Culinary arts students like Ray qualify for an extra $30-$60 if they participate in private catering events or serve as tour guides at the facility.
The most popular program is Garden to Groceries, hands-on training where students grow produce, like cucumbers, kale and squash, in aeroponic tower gardens supplied by a partner, Juice Plus+. These gardens require no soil and use minimal space in the innovative greenhouse supplied with water mist controls and ventilation operated on timers. Students grow a variety of herbs and greens used for cooking demonstrations and catering events.
Once students complete the programs, they are funneled into the workforce through corporate partners like FedEx, Mitsubishi Electric and Juice Plus+, with the latter two companies offering a pre-negotiated $15 an hour wage. There are efforts to diversify the logistics and forklift driving certifications to include more women, so they can have access to more opportunities in areas known for substantially higher wages.
Again, the facts support these efforts: A 2017 National Partnership for Women and Families report said black women in Tennessee working full-time earn an annual median salary of $31,382, a wage gap of $14,729 compared with white males. Access to nontraditional job training for women could help close this gap.
“When you start to think of the overall wealth gap and how it compounds itself in the economy, we must close the gap, which is 10:1 when compared to white males in this country, Michele Jawando, spokeswoman for Center of American Progress, told MLK50. “We just have to rethink education systems across the board.”
Getting ahead takes getting there
One big structural issue vexes the center’s efforts: Memphis’ poorly conceived transportation system. Grier spoke of the frustration she felt when students got jobs at East Memphis retail stores and businesses, only to be left stranded by the end of their shift with no way to get home.
“I went out and talked to the folks who hire my students only to realize the bus stopped running before 10 p.m.,” Grier said. “Most of the shifts ended at 10 or 10:30 p.m. even though students were able to get there, but they were not able to get home. Even for our training programs, it would take three buses to get to our services. That is just not feasible, and it’s a huge problem in the city.”
Despite conversations with Memphis Area Transit Authority officials, Grier and her team have had to look at other options. One such partnership is My City Rides, a recently launched nonprofit that provides motor scooter training and lease-to-own financing for applicants. For $3 per day, technical center participants get gas, training, a helmet and deferred maintenance on their scooter lease. It’s more reliable and cost-effective than getting a car.
“We want our students to have a great quality life,” Grier said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.