Wake Technical Community College said it will become one of just a handful of institutions to offer a new robotics apprenticeship with e-commerce giant Amazon.

As part of the partnership, Wake Tech is launching a Mechatronics and Robotics Apprenticeship program that will train people how to perform maintenance on the high-tech robotics that dominate Amazon’s fulfillment center across the country.

Since the program is an apprenticeship, students who go through the program will be paid by Amazon and move immediately from the classroom to on-the-job training.

Scott Ralls, president of Wake Tech, said in an interview that the Amazon-backed program shows how valuable community colleges are becoming as companies attempt to fill the thousands of technology-focused jobs being created.

There’s a huge competition for talent, Ralls said, and community colleges increasingly are seen as a critical way to fill those job openings.

“If everyone fishing for tech talent is always fishing in the same part of the lake, they are going to miss some incredible talent,” Ralls said, “particularly students who are veterans, working adults and students who are from working- and lower-income families.”

Wake joins Vincennes University in Indiana, Lehigh Carbon Community College in Pennsylvania and Dallas College in Texas in offering the program, though Amazon says it will likely be expanded to other places.

Ralls said Wake Tech was able to land the program because of the college’s strong focus on high-tech education. The community college has plans to build a new tech-focused campus in Wendell, and offers computer programming classes.

The college is also near Amazon’s massive fulfillment center in Garner, which the company has invested in heavily over the past two years.

Additionally, it helped that Ralls has experience working with Amazon. Before becoming president at Wake Tech, Ralls was president of Northern Virginia Community College from 2015 to 2019. His time there overlapped with Amazon’s decision to place part of its HQ2 expansion in Northern Virginia, and during that search he struck up relationships with people at the company.

That led to him creating a cloud computing program at Northern Virginia Community College that was similarly backed by Amazon.

How Amazon apprenticeship program works

The Wake Tech program is part of Amazon’s $700 million toward its Upskilling 2025 initiative, which offers training in high-demand skills.

The first cohort for the program will include 18 students, Ralls said, though that is a smaller number than normal because of COVID-19. Eventually, each cohort will be around 20 to 25 students with three cohorts running at the same time.

The in-class portion of the robotics course will last for 12 weeks and is followed by a year of on-the-job training at Amazon’s fulfillment centers.

Amazon will pay the students during the coursework, and the company says there will be pay bumps for every stage of the apprenticeship completed.

Amazon has a minimum wage of $15 per hour, though it did not say what these positions can expect. It did note, however, that employees in the program can expect wages to increase nearly 40% at the end of the classroom phase, and then another 48% increase after the second on-the-job training is completed.

The positions will be needed as Amazon is rapidly expanding its footprint across the country. The company projected it would expand its available square footage by 50% in 2020, Business Insider reported.

The new fulfillment centers that will make up that expansion are full of automated robots that work with humans to move millions of items. However, those machines require fine-tuned maintenance and engineering to keep the Amazon system running continuously.

The company’s growth in the past year has been fueled by a huge boost in demand for online shopping during the pandemic. Amazon has hired hundreds of thousands of new employees this year to match that demand, and it now employs 1.2 million people worldwide.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.