ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) — In Roanoke County, a program is putting new life back into an old way of getting into the workforce. This comes as colleges across the nation are losing students.

Over the past two years, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says enrollments have decreased by more than one million students, with public colleges and community colleges seeing the sharpest drop-offs. A big reason is the cost.

Phoenix Angel graduated from Roanoke County Public Schools as a member of the Class of 2019. 

“I originally wanted to be an architect,” Angel shared.

He initially planned to attend Virginia Western Community College to meet that career goal, but Angel’s plans changed. The complexity of balancing college, a job, and life in general — not to mention the cost of a college degree — made Angel weigh his options.

“I pretty much shadowed my crew chief,” he said.

Instead of college, Angel chose the Student Registered Apprentice (SRA) Program offered through Roanoke County Public Schools. The program placed him at Balzar & Associates, an engineering and architecture company.

“I learned the basics, learning how to do coding, learning how to do field work, staking out buildings, doing surveys, and all that kind of stuff,” said Angel.

“Opportunities like this one are invaluable. College is just crammed in people’s faces nowadays,” he added. “It just seems like that’s the only option you have and that’s simply not the case with programs like this.”

Now, Angel works for the company full-time as a supervisor.

Roanoke County Public Schools has offered the SRA Program for six years now, allowing about 30 students to follow in Angel’s footsteps by opting for an apprenticeship rather than pursuing college right away.

“That apprenticeship turned from a high schooler working and getting some hours and figuring out if this is something he wants to do, to a full-time career with Balzar & Associates,” shared Jason Suhr, the director of the district’s career and technical education department.

“Right now, I am running a crew and basically teaching people what I was taught when I was hired,” Angel said.

Angel tells WFXR News he’s glad he weighed his options. This apprenticeship was better for him than attending college and perhaps, it would be as well for other students. The SRA program is open to all students, whether or not you attended a Roanoke County public school.

The district hopes more students enroll, as well as more companies. Suhr says, it’s a great opportunity for business to train their own new employees, right after graduation.