REIDSVILLE — Thanks to the Rockingham Apprenticeship and Technical Opportunities Partnership Apprenticeship program, also called RockATOP, Omar Rodriguez is receiving a free education, as well training and work experience in a local manufacturing company.
A 2019 graduate of Reidsville High School, Rodriguez started in the program his junior year. He serves as a maintenance technician apprentice at Amcor Specialty Cartons in Reidsville, and he is working toward his associate degree at Rockingham Community College. Rodriguez learned about RockATOP through a presentation at his high school.
"I immediately realized this program would be a great opportunity to help pay for college, as well as give me hands-on work experience," said Rodriguez, 20. "If you like hands-on work, this program would be a good fit."
Connecting students and employers with associate degree training and career employment in high-demand technical fields, RockATOP accepted its first applications in 2017, and had its first cohort of students in the summer of 2018. Rockingham County 11th or 12th grade students with at least a 2.8 grade point average may apply to the program.
Apprentices are able to earn money on the job as soon as they start the four-year apprenticeship program while also taking college classes at no cost, and they get paid for their time in class.
"This year, we had applications from each traditional public high school, early college, private, charter and homeschool community," said Lydia Craddock, career counselor and apprenticeship facilitator for Rockingham County Schools.
It's a win-win for the students and the companies for which they apprentice. Students have the opportunity to gain a college degree and promising career with zero debt, while companies gain enthusiastic, skilled workers from within their community. In addition to the program providing the opportunity for students to earn their associate degree in advanced manufacturing from RCC for free, students are paid while they complete their apprenticeship.
Many companies hire their apprentices full-time once they complete the program.
Students aren't required to stay with the company with which they apprentice and do not sign a contract, and it is up to the company whether they want to offer an apprentice a permanent position.
"Some go into it planning to transfer to a four-year college, such as the engineering school at ECU," Craddock said.
There are now 37 apprentices working in the program, and 12 more are in the interview process to participate as pre-apprentices this summer. Thirteen local companies participate in the program.
"Not every company who has an apprenticeship program takes apprentices each year," Craddock said. "Some companies take apprentices every other year."
This year, the program has six companies taking apprentices: Pine Hall Brick, MSI, ABCO Automations, Henniges Automotive, Rockingham County Schools and Culp Home Fashions.
While COVID-19 has led to challenges for the program this past year, Craddock and leaders within the community have worked tirelessly to share information and continue to serve students and the workforce.
"We couldn't go to pep rallies and assemblies to present the program, so we have had to mail flyers and create television and Internet ads," Craddock said.
Morehead High senior Bryant Hornback, 18, is enjoying his apprenticeship at Machine Specialties, Inc. in Whitsett, where he rotates each month to learn about different areas of the shop. While he is still deciding whether he will try to obtain his four-year degree or go straight to work once he finishes his apprenticeship, Hornback is thrilled to have the opportunity to gain independence right out of high school.
"This program has also had a profound effect on my communication skills," he added. "I would advise others to not let fear stop you from trying out this program. The pre-apprenticeship during the summer helps you decide whether this program and type of work is for you or not."
Interest in the RockATOP program has remained steady and has led to three spin-off programs: RockATOP Career Express, RockATOP Works and RockATOP Connects.
"We want everyone to graduate high school with a workable plan," Craddock said. "All our life, we've told these kids the next step is college, but that is not for everyone."
Some careers require a four-year degree, while some require certification and licenses or a two-year degree.
"Some students go straight to work and some straight to college or the military, but we're missing those in the middle," Craddock said. "Some need education beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year degree."
The RockATOP program aims to fill those gaps, as well as fill the needs of companies in Rockingham County.
While most students graduating from the apprenticeship program gain an associate of applied science in manufacturing, RCC works to tailor offerings to the specific needs of companies and students.
"If the company wants the student to earn an associate in science and go on to engineering school, and that fits in with the apprenticed position, then we can put the student in the associate in science degree," said Jennifer Lester, the applied technologies and apprenticeship coordinator for RCC. "We work with the company to determine the needs of the company and the requirements of the apprenticed position."
Lester believes the RockATOP program is helping make Rockingham County stronger and a more attractive place for workers and current companies, as well as companies which may locate in the community.
"Around the county, state and country, we are seeing an aging and retiring workforce, which means experts in their fields are leaving, and no one is trained to replace them," Lester said. "The apprenticeship program is an opportunity for companies to bring on students and have those experts in their field provide training to grow and strengthen the next generation of the workforce before retiring. Companies can develop highly skilled employees who are hopefully invested in the organization."
"Rockingham County Economic Development is on the ball and fielding requests for companies wanting to relocate to Rockingham County," she said. "If we are going to improve the status of our community, we need to prepare our workers."
Looking ahead, Craddock and Lester are excited about the new RockATOP spinoff programs. While apprenticeships are limited to advanced manufacturing at this time, they also hope to develop apprenticeships in other fields, such as criminal justice and the medical field.
Jennifer Atkins Brown writes every other Sunday for this section. Contact her at email@example.com.