Skills On Display: A Visit to 1220 Exhibits

A few months ago, my talented cabinetmaker classmate left the Building Construction Technology classroom at Tennessee College of Applied Technology Nashville for a work-study program at 1220 Exhibits. Now, instead of coming to class, he gets school credit while getting paid to learn on the job.

I recently visited my classmate at work in the 100,000-square-foot creative facility—equipped with countless chopsaws, massive CNC tables and printers large enough to print a billboard—and, while I miss seeing him in our classroom, I am happy to report that he has landed in a very cool enterprise.

Tucked in the industrial district between Nolensville Pike and Trousdale Drive, 1220 Exhibits is where museum exhibits are born. The company’s portfolio includes the Muhammad Ali Center, National Parks Services, and U.S. Naval Academy, among countless universities, museums and corporate headquarters. On my tour, I saw interactive booths, touchscreen displays and detailed custom cabinetry in process that will anchor museums and trade shows across the country, to educate visitors and clients on everything from Civil Rights to innovative building supplies.

I found my former classmate building an elaborate wall of shelving for a museum display, while his colleagues were putting finishing touches on an intricate trade show installation with live trees and a water feature. In other areas of the sprawling workshop, artists fine-tuned sculptures and screen printing, while CAD designers mapped out schematics for complex furniture in wood and metal.

A hive like 1220 requires a deep pool of technical talent–the kind that is in short supply across the country. Analysis of the nation’s skills gap suggests that as many as 45% of small businesses struggle to fill positions with skilled workers.

“We always need talent,” says 1220 director of operations Ricky Wells. In the search for skilled employees, Wells explored educational programs across the country designed to prepare students for technical jobs like the positions at 1220. After visiting multiple programs out of state, Wells says, “We thought, ‘How can we grow these skills at home?’ ”

That’s when Wells connected with TCATN. He now serves as an advisor to the Building Construction Technology class at TCATN. In that role, Wells helps instructors shape curriculum to provide skills needed in Nashville’s manufacturing economy. For example, in the coming weeks, he will organize a demonstration tutorial to give our class hands-on practice with industrial paint finishing.

And of course, he helps coordinate work-study programs like the one my classmate is currently enrolled in—which, from what I saw on my visit, is working out well for both parties.

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