KINGS MOUNTAIN––Ernest Meeks was working as a puller-locator for Hanes Brands, Inc.
Meeks had been with the Kings Mountain-based location since 2016. But according to Gaston College’s marketing department, about three years ago, the Kings Mountain man decided he needed to go back to school to learn machining technology. A bulletin posted at work invited employees to submit an essay in order to be considered for an apprenticeship program that would enable the chosen apprentice to work while getting a cost-free education.
To Meeks, the program seemed a pathway to career advancement and an opportunity to increase his salary. He wrote his essay and turned it in the next day. A few months later, he learned he was selected to join the Gaston College Apprenticeship 321 program. In 2019, he began the apprenticeship and his classes, majoring in industrial systems technology, as Meeks recently recalled.
“When I first started my classes,” he said, “I was nervous, especially when I saw that most of my classmates were younger than my kids. I could tell that I’d been out of school for a while since the others were answering questions much faster than I could. But after a couple of days, it got better, and I was able to get the answers and follow along with everyone else.”
Meeks was determined to get good grades, no matter how difficult the courses were. As the only representative of Hanes in the apprenticeship program, he felt an obligation to do well. And his hard work has paid off. Come May 13, he’ll be among Gaston College’s graduates with an industrial maintenance mechanic diploma. He is now a maintenance mechanic at Hanes and will continue in that role with an eye on advancing in the future, according to Joel Rohrer, the company’s maintenance supervisor and Meeks’s mentor.
“I am very thankful that Ernest was able to take advantage of the apprenticeship program,” said Rohrer. “This partnership, with grant money paying for his cost of schooling and our company paying Ernest while attending, made it possible for Ernest to advance and excel. Without Apprenticeship 321, this would not have happened. Ernest has been able to take on more and more responsibility inside of our department, and it has been very satisfying to observe the growth and personal ownership that Ernest has developed.”
Working and going to school was a challenge to Meeks, but he was determined not to give up.
“I would not let my kids see me fail,” he said, “and I was not going to let my work family see me give up.”
The apprenticeship program was a highly positive experience for him, and he is especially grateful for the support and encouragement he received from his instructors at Gaston College. And having been a non-traditional student, Meeks has some advice for those considering attending college.
“I encourage you to do so,” he said, “no matter if you’re just getting out of high school or you have been out of high school for 20 years. It is never too early or too late to get an education. You may have obstacles in your way, but you can overcome them to reach your goal in life.”