Making Memphis a first choice for new graduates

Many high school graduates often look outside Memphis for college or employment to start their futures. A new effort led by nonprofit City Leadership seeks to retain Memphis' brightest minds. 

“My goal is to connect and equip these students with professional development skills and anything else they need to help them pursue opportunities in the city,” said Joi Taylor, City Leadership alumni coordinator for Choose901’s alumni program.

Formerly known as Alumni901 during its pilot phase, the program works with graduates from four high schools — New Hope Christian Academy, Collegiate School of Memphis, Soulsville Charter School and St. George’s Independent School.

“About a year and a half ago, alumni counselors from our partner schools expressed interest in working with us. We really admired what New Hope, Soulsville and Collegiate were doing with their alumni, particularly New Hope’s counselors’ long-term, sustained relationships with students,” said Luke Pruett, City Leadership recruiting director. “We would love to see more schools pick up these alumni counselor positions. It’s not common nationally or in Memphis.”

Eventually, it was decided that students needed a professional connection. That’s where Taylor comes in to connect them with opportunities in Memphis. 

“After they graduate from school is when I start contact with them. The schools we are working with have alumni counselors who have already built relationships with the graduates. I have relationships with each of these counselors that afford me the opportunity to make connections and talk to them about the wonderful things Memphis has to offer them,” said Taylor, who joined City Leadership in May of 2017.

Taylor generally connects with the students via text or social media. Speaking once a week, they discuss future plans as well as how their summer’s going.

“Once they give me a path or lane they tell me they are trying to go down, I point them to things, resources and opportunities that we have here in the city that could be beneficial to them,” said Taylor. “We just try to meet them where they are. That’s the goal.”

Once the students' interest is piqued, Taylor talks to a jobs coordinator about specific opportunities. Those opportunities range from educational pursuits like college and trade schools to joining the military or finding employment.

Some of the opportunities arise from partnerships with Choose 901's organizations around town. For instance, Taylor has directed students to the Memphis Teacher Residency graduate program. Other partners include Memphis Athletic Ministries, Streets Ministries, Church Health Scholars, AutoZone and Methodist Hospital.

Memphis’ largest employer is also on board with the program.

“We have started a relationship with FedEx trying to get students in to build an internship program. We are trying to get more into the for-profit world. We are able to leverage our many close relationships in the nonprofit world to open the door for more alumni to get in, but it’s the for-profit world we are trying to get our foot in the door. We had a meeting a couple of weeks back with ALSAC to see what we can do to create a pipeline with them,” said Taylor.

In the past year, eight students have found jobs through the Choose901 alumni program, which also helps students beyond their early post-high school years.

The Choose901 alumni program coordinated a networking event in January at Clayborn Temple which brought together alumni from four area high schools with Memphis professionals.

“We have a student in Knoxville who graduates this May. She was interested in education so we connected her to TFA (Teach for America),” said Taylor.

The nonprofit helped the student with mock interviews, resume work and an application. Eager to come back home, they also helped the Soulsville Charter School graduate find placement in her alma mater, starting in the fall.

“Choose901 will continue to be a megaphone for the city of Memphis. Our goal is to recruit folks into our partner organizations like Memphis Teacher Residency, City Year or Teach for America, so we are going to continue to be about that work. But the ability to target particular candidates who already have interest in Memphis by it being their hometown, it’s a direction and way forward for our work,” said Pruett. 

Part of the message will be combating the notion that Memphis doesn’t have many opportunities.

“There are two myths we really want to go after. One of them, and this is true of not only alumni but many Memphians, is the belief the jobs aren’t there. Our experience has been quite the opposite. We not only want to help people get connected to economic opportunities, we also don’t want to lose talented people to other cities like DC, Nashville, or Atlanta.”

Pruett also said employers can be guilty of selling Memphis short, too. Often times they look out of town for new talent.

“The other myth is employers believe the people aren’t there. Our Choose901 job board is the most-clicked link on our entire website. So there are actually a ton of people looking for jobs and employers that need jobs filled.”

Regardless if you are nearing graduation in high school or college or jumping into the job market, Choose901’s goal is to convince young graduates the soundest career move is close to home.

“We believe your best job is right here in Memphis,” said Pruett.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.