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RockATOP: Bringing the state’s students into the workforce

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  • The RockATOP apprenticeship program through Rockingham Community College is bringing students as young as high school into the modern workforce. Find out how.
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North Carolina’s community college system has a $19 billion impact on the state’s economy each year. But that number is made from the individual impacts of the state’s 58 community colleges.

One of those colleges — Rockingham Community College — is making its worth felt through its unique apprenticeship program.

RockATOP stands for the Rockingham Apprenticeship Technical Opportunities Partnership. It can last up to five years, beginning with pre-apprenticeship if students start while they’re still in high school.

So, let’s say you start in junior year of high school. You would start the summer before senior year, taking community college classes and getting on-the-job training at a local business. You would get paid for a total of 40 hours a week at $10 an hour, making money both while you learn and work.

In your senior year, pay goes up to $12.50 an hour. You spend half a day at high school and the rest of the day working and getting on-the-job training. In the years after that, you split your time between community college classes and work.

In the process of participating in the program, you can earn an associate degree from Rockingham Community College, get your tuition and books for free, and get specialized certification, not to mention all the work benefits you may get from the employer you partner with.

“Hopefully then, the students come out of this program in four to five years with very little debt due to education, a career, set up for success in life, they get a journeyman certification in whatever their occupation is, and just lots of training in their field,” said Jennifer Lester, Rockingham Community College apprenticeship coordinator, back in October. “Students that tend to go straight to college and earn a degree don’t have that experience when they come out. So these students are getting experience and a degree at the same time.”

Logan Vincent, a participant in Rockingham Community College’s RockATOP program. Dec. 2020. Photo from Rockingham Community College’s RockATOP website.

The idea for Rockingham’s apprenticeship program began, in part, with a stark reality: the retirement of many of the state’s workers.

“In the beginning, the phrase that we talked about a lot was the silver tsunami,” Lester said. “This idea that the workforce is aging, and we have to train a new workforce before all the people that have that that skill …. leave.”

This is a problem being faced across North Carolina, and the investment by community colleges in training and re-training workers will pay off in spades. For every dollar spent in the state’s community college in fiscal year 2019-20, North Carolina residents got $7.50 back. For Rockingham Community College, state residents get $7.90 back for every dollar spent.

While the benefit to students is clear, what about to employers? Many trade employers across the state are having trouble finding workers to fill their positions. A common refrain during our visits to community colleges across the state is that the schools can’t meet the supply that their local workforces demand.

One way of making sure those companies can get workers with the skills they need is by participating in apprenticeship programs.

“Current hiring practices are no longer effective in filling positions that require technical or advanced skills,” the RockATOP website states. “Today’s tough labor market demands new strategies to attract and develop skilled talent.”

Photo from Rockingham Community College’s RockATOP website.
Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.