The ROC at the Goodwill Construction Skills Training Center (GCSTC), a 15,000 sq. ft. warehouse located directly across from Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology (and walking distance to Harding High, and a short shuttle from West Meck)).
The ROC at the Goodwill Construction Skills Training Center (GCSTC), a 15,000 sq. ft. warehouse located directly across from Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology (and walking distance to Harding High, and a short shuttle from West Meck)).

In any standings, someone or something needs to rank first. Another inevitably ranks last.

In a 2013 study that ranks comparative upward social and income mobility across the nation's top 50 metropolitan areas, Charlotte, N.C., attained a dubious distinction. Dead last.

When you expanded the Harvard-UC Berkeley data set to the 100 largest metro areas, Charlotte fared hardly any better. 97th on the list. Meaning, in 96 other of the U.S.'s largest cities, children from households earning the bottom 20% in wages had a better shot at rising to the top 20% in earnings than those who grow up in Charlotte's low-income households.

So, you can imagine the odds stacked up against a young Hispanic girl, about to enter her junior year this time last year at West Meck High in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system on Charlotte's west side, whose home is a trailer a half-mile walk to the nearest bus stop to school each day.

How likely would it be that this 16-or-so year-old, whose grasp of English and whose self-esteem and self-confidence were so equally tenuous that she'd never so much as open her mouth, could make it? Against what odds would she do so, climbing into the rarefied 4.2% of kids in Charlotte's most impoverished households who escape poverty and enjoy success in a career and life?

Or would she instead remain trapped? This would have to be the more likely scenario, along with more than 95% of the other youngsters in the lowest economic quintile of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, at the grim intersection of academic social statistics and a real world going almost nowhere. Is that the probable fate of this particular Charlotte teenager from a high-poverty neighborhood?

Not if Darren Ash can help it. Ash and a small-but-powerful band of educators, construction company executives, financial backers, and friends and partners have teamed up to ignite one of the nation's bright spot case examples of a way to re-open a once-flowing tap--high school vocational training--to a fresh young stream of skilled construction workers. Executive Director Ash and his associates are in year two of an upstart Charlotte-based organization called The ROC--Rebuilding Opportunities in Construction--that gives junior- and senior-year high school students a chance to learn a trade as they complete their other courses required to graduate.

In The ROC, Ash and his team have modeled a high-school level construction apprenticeship--a "shop-on-steroids" program--that gives kids like this Hispanic teen student an opportunity for success in both high school and a livelihood afterwards. At the same time, the program aims--at capacity--to get 60 high school students on track to become a next generation of construction trade workers, all with direct on-site internship experience, by the time they've earned their high school diploma.

For Ash, the enterprise is a classic labor of love. He co-founded, built, and ultimately sold multifamily investment advisory firm Apartment Realty Advisors to Newmark in September 2007, creating the multifamily business giant that is ARA/Newmark today. The moonshot lucrative deal provided the opportunity for Darren Ash to pour his energies into a "second half of life," giving back to people and communities, and not taking a salary.

Here, per Ash himself, is how The ROC, works:

  1. The ROC, established in 2018, is a N.C.-certified Youth Apprenticeship program which prepares at-risk high school students for a career in the construction technologies field.
  2. Our students are currently selected starting their junior year from 3 high-poverty high schools (Harding, West Mecklenburg and Phillip O. Berry) with drop-out rates as high as 40%.
  3. Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) provides all teacher instruction to ROC students via the Career & College Promise pathway which allows ROC students to earn dual college and high school credits.
  4. The curriculum includes college level classes in construction management, advanced carpentry, electrical and HVAC technology, green building design and architecture.
  5. The ROC program incorporates an innovative “active learning” approach combining classroom and laboratory instruction with work-based learning internships all to simulate real-life construction industry situations.
  6. During each summer, ROC students participate in the only “under 18” youth apprenticeship program in NC with local construction companies. Students are paid during their six-week apprenticeship and earn college work-based learning credits.
  7. ROC’s initial cohort of 15 juniors have completed their first year and were all employed this summer as interns for major commercial construction companies or national homebuilders. Their average pay is $14.50 / hour. These 15 seniors are now concentrating on industry specific pathways in either construction management (with a minor in architecture) or electrical (which a minor in HVAC).
  8. Our 2nd cohort of 25 new juniors just commenced the ROC Program August 15, 2019.
  9. Upon completion of high school, ROC students (roughly 70% male/30% female) may elect to continue with CPCC for one more year tuition-free to complete their Associate’s degree. A ROC graduate with an Associate’s Degree can earn over $50,000 per year plus benefits by age 19.

Our friend, Bird Anderson, executive VP for commercial real estate and homebuilding banking at Wells Fargo, heard about The ROC and Ash's initiatives through his family church. He has since thrown in his own efforts, both to raise awareness and funds, and to engage local home builders and developers--like David Weekley, True Homes, D.R. Horton, Lennar Multifamily, and others--to take the kids on as intern-apprentices. Anderson, who's joined The ROC's six-member board, can scarcely contain his excitement for an enterprise whose mission is both to improve the life and economic outlook for Charlotte's young un- and underprivileged kids while at the same time developing a fresh, young, stream of talent in the skilled construction fields.

Says Anderson:

"Foundational gifts, largely for the build-out of the training facility, have been obtained. On-going funding is needed for what is in essence student scholarships to cover the gap cost of training and maintenance. A substantial portion of this is being covered by the NC state educational funds and commerce dept. There is clearly municipal buy-in," Anderson notes. "There is also a need from industry to provide students with paid internships after their first year. Students graduate debt free. Graduates of The ROC will have skills to get in to very good wage jobs immediately, or to be placed in further developmental paid internships, or to go on for further study with several credit hours towards an associate’s degree. Darren is a proven leader."

Ash would be first to say that he could not do this work--unpaid though it is--without a team of people, including those at Central Piedmont Community College who set the idea in motion, such as Margaret Thornton, associate director and CTE Coordinator, The ROC / CPCC, Steve Corriher, Division Director of Construction Technologies, CPCC, Dr. Matthew Hayes - Northwest Community Superintendent, and CMS, Brian Otto - Director of Construction Services, Goodwill Industries.

"Why are we unique?" Ash asks. "Perhaps in that the program so fully can integrate teaching and training in the construction trades with a full high school class load. They have their core classes in the morning, and come to us in the afternoon."

Challenges include a host of issues that go with trying to dial in social change where poverty and adversity have established a strong, unrelenting grip. To properly train its student apprentices, instructors need to double-down in basic math skills so that the kids can keep up. Discipline is a big issue, as is the time it takes to get a student to begin to believe in him or herself, like that young Hispanic student we mentioned above.

"A woman executive from a major home building firm took her under her wing, and mentored her one-to-one, from the early days last fall in the training lab, through to her on-site internship this past summer," Ash explains. "What's more, all the kids in the program participate in the exercises and tasks and cheer one another on, building on little successes one by one. By the end of this summer, we saw a 100% transformation in her personality and confidence level. Now, we can hardly get her to stop talking, and she's as passionate as they come about what she's learning and keen to learn more."

The kicker, according to Darren Ash.

"This is not an unusual case. This is one example of many."

Source: The Opportunity Atlas analysis of U.S. Census data.
Source: The Opportunity Atlas analysis of U.S. Census data.

Statistically, Charlotte has a long way to go to improve its standings among America's top 50 metro areas for social, economic, and educational mobility. As well, construction has a long way to go to reverse the statistical tide of four or more skilled worker retirees for each new entrant into the skilled construction trades.

But for this Hispanic girl, whose career prospects amounted to next to nil, and for a little band of educators, social change agents, and home building company instructors, mentors, and partners, transformation is afoot. It takes both lowering the barriers and raising the desire and determination and self-belief on the part of these young students to set their own upward mobility in motion.

For Darren Ash and his team at The ROC, it's a Labor [Day] of Love.