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From high schools into the workforce: Rockingham Community College

High school graduation is usually a time of excitement as students look forward to their future. Watch any movie these days, and you’ll hear a lot of talk about packing up for college and starting a journey towards a world of professional employment — one fueled by bachelor’s degrees and student debt. But when Daniel Pinnix was nearing the zenith of his high school experience, he got worried. 

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m going to graduate, and I have no idea what I’m going to do,'” he said. 

Not two weeks later, his school got a visit by officials from Rockingham Community College touting RockATOP — Rockingham Apprenticeship Technical Opportunities Partnership. 

The program is a true collaboration, partnering local and state organizations, the local school system, the business community, and the community college. Its goal is to take motivated students and put them in a program that allows them to get paid to work and go to college, all while still in high school.

Pinnix jumped on board, and today he’s working at Smith-Carolina, which manufactures industrial concrete buffers, while working on getting his associate degree in manufacturing technology at Rockingham Community College. Now, Pinnix said his biggest challenge is learning to be an adult in the workforce. 

“Getting used to how it is on a job site,” he said. “Getting used to having a bossman instead of a teacher.” 

Student welding at Rockingham Community College

RockATOP was a program five years in the making, but it finally launched in 2017 when Rockingham staff and members of the business community visited area high schools and presented the apprenticeship opportunity to 1,600 juniors and seniors. One hundred and seventy-four initially expressed interest, and ultimately 20 students completed what is called pre-apprenticeship, completing 240 hours of paid work and taking two face-to-face courses at the college. Of those, 17 entered the full apprenticeship program and continue working and getting their education. 

The school is talking about expanding the apprenticeship program to more fields, and Kenny Scott, Career Technical Education director for Rockingham County Schools, said that if the program is better explained to students, he thinks more could become eligible. Right now, a student has to have a 2.5 GPA in high school to graduate, but he sees potential in some who didn’t make it this time if only they knew they had to work harder earlier to qualify. 

“That’s what I tell kids. ‘You’ve got to be ready when opportunity knocks,'” he said. 

For Rockingham Community College president Mark Kinlaw, programs like RockATOP are essential. The biggest issue he said his college needs to address are the workforce needs of the community. 

“It is in my opinion the most significant issue we face right now,” he said. 

President Mark Kinlaw speaking next to an ambulance from the college’s EMS program

Over time, Kinlaw said that he has seen the population the college serves changing. It used to be that students in their thirties were the prime target for the school, but more and more it’s serving younger students, even those in high school. 

Rockingham has an early college high school on campus and serves additional high school students who take classes through the community college. But he laments the loss of the older population at his school. 

“We don’t have the programs for them,” he said. “The system got away from it. The system says you’ve got to have a four-year degree, but that’s not the case.” 

Kinlaw is working hard to change that. One of the chief victories that will make that happen is a ballot measure that passed with 55 percent of the vote in May. It increases the sales tax rate in the county by a quarter of a cent, raising the rate from 6.75 to seven percent and will bring in about $1.8 million to the college each year. It will go towards upgrading facilities and equipment, but its biggest purpose is to build a new home for the manufacturing programs in a workforce development center. 

The advanced manufacturing program at Rockingham is currently housed in two old buildings, one built in 1967 and one built in 1979. Kinlaw hopes the new center will “enhance” the programs and generate more interest in them from students, but it alone will not be enough to get the students the workforce needs. 

“We feel like this is part of workforce solutions,” he said. “It is not the answer.” 

There are many programs at Rockingham Community College that need upgrading, Kinlaw said, but one that the college already tackled are its health services programs. 

Two years ago, the college opened a refurbished health services building that includes interactive mannequins, mock hospital rooms, a phlebotomy lab complete with disembodied arms, and even an ambulance. 

Phlebotomy practice arm

Walking through the new, open, and brightly lit facility, Vicky Chitwood, the Allied Health Department Chair at Rockingham Community College, was beaming. She has been in this building since she started at the college 16 years ago. Back then, the first floor of the building was divided between child care and early retirement, and health sciences were run on the second floor. The nursing program was in an entirely different building. Today, the whole building is turned over to health sciences and brimming with opportunities for students. 

“I love our hospital,” Chitwood said. 

That hospital is used by students like Don Hendrix. He spent about seven years in law enforcement before deciding he needed a change. 

“The gratification for me kind of declined…I wanted to do something more, and I know that might sound cliche. I want to do more for people,” he said. 

Hendrix’s mother was diagnosed with terminal stage three colon cancer about six years ago, and Hendrix was exposed to a variety of professions in the health care field. He finally settled on respiratory therapy, which he said was more specialized and suitable for his personality type. 

Hendrix said that his time in the program at Rockingham has left him on solid footing. He recently started his first day of clinical work, and while he said he was exposed to a lot of new and unexpected things, he felt confident in his abilities. 

“That was the first day for me that things started clicking,” he said. “I started doing things and reacting to situations without having to think about it too much.” 

See Hendrix practicing his craft in the video below: 

Getting more students like Hendrix is key to the success of both Rockingham Community College and the county. Last fall, things seemed to be on the upswing at the college. Enrollment was up about nine percent. But this fall, it’s back down about nine percent. Kinlaw said the school needs to do a better job reaching out to prospective students, but also reaching out to their parents and teaching them that a four-year degree isn’t the only option for their children. 

The good news is there is a lot of allegiance to the community college in the county. As the only higher education option there, it has a good reputation. And, as student debt increasingly becomes an issue, Kinlaw said he expects more parents are going to want students to get their general education requirements taken care of at community college. 

“I think eventually you’re going to see a shift of parents understanding that you just can’t handle that type of debt,” he said. 

But that still leaves slots for students not planning to transfer to four-year colleges, and that’s an area Kinlaw really wants to see grow. The school’s responsibility to the community really lies in training students and getting them staffed in businesses around the area. 

“We’re supposed to be the economic development drivers in the state,” he said of community colleges. 

Alex Granados

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