PPPL’s apprenticeship program ramps up for 2022

Written by
Raphael Rosen
March 16, 2022

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) is now accepting applications for its latest cohort of apprentices for fields including electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, information technology, welding, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). The Laboratory’s four-year apprenticeship program provides on-the-job learning through full-time employment and coursework through a partner educational institution. This is the fourth year that the Laboratory has offered apprenticeships.

During a March 1 virtual information session, PPPL director Steven Cowley stressed that the apprenticeship program, which he helped establish in 2019, is necessary for the Lab to build and maintain the machines that will help researchers test ideas that could advance the world’s quest to harness fusion to produce clean electricity. “We are looking for people to join with us and work with us,” Cowley said. “We’re getting close to making fusion energy a reality, and we need new recruits to push the effort through to the end.”

Applicants must be at least 18 years old at the start of the program in August 2022 and have either a high school diploma or an equivalent. They also must apply for a four-week pre-apprenticeship program to be considered for an apprenticeship.

PPPL is one of 17 U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories and is a world-class
fusion energy and plasma research center operated by Princeton University for the federal government. It is the only national laboratory dedicated to developing the scientific and technological knowledge for fusion energy as a safe, economical and environmentally attractive source for the world’s long-term energy needs.

During the information session, the group explained why apprentices are critical to the Laboratory’s operations, what the apprenticeships entail, and how one could apply. Cowley stressed that the effort requires staff with a wide range of skills. “Making these things happen not only takes physicists and engineers, but also technicians and support staff,” he said. “You can’t build these machines unless you have people who can think with their hands as well as their heads; people who can make things; people who can repair things, work with high voltages, and prepare materials in particular ways. We need a new generation of these people to bring fusion energy to the grid.”

The presentation also featured Shannon Swilley Greco, the Lab’s science education senior program leader. She talked about plasma, PPPL’s mission, and the fusion process. In demonstrations, she used magnets and plasma devices to show a plasma’s properties. “We’re all working together to achieve this mission of clean energy,” she told the audience. “This is a really exciting time to be a part of the Laboratory.”

The presentation also included information applicants would need to apply for entrance to the program, as well as details about the hours apprentices would need to complete the program and what kind of status they would have at the end. “I want to stress that this is a full-time program in which you are paid to learn,” said Diana Adel, program administrator for the apprenticeship program. “These positions will help you get workplace experience that leads to receiving a certificate known as a journeyman paper, which is a nationally recognized credential.” For more information on the PPPL Apprenticeship Program, visit www.pppl.gov/work-us/apprenticeships. Applications for the pre-apprentice program must be received by May 10.

Apprenticeships are structured in a way that allow apprentices to learn different parts of their position, work with mentors, and attend classes at Mercer County Technical School and Mercer County Community College. Applicants must first apply to a four-week pre-apprenticeship program in which they will shadow PPPL staff members and get a sense of the work environment. Once accepted into the program, apprentices must complete 8,000 on-the-job hours and 576 relative-training instruction hours. Only people in the pre-apprentice program can apply for a full apprenticeship, which lasts for four years.

The application program has already begun. Applications for the pre-apprenticeship program are being accepted now, and selections will be confirmed on June 14. The program will begin on July 11 and last for four weeks. The full apprenticeship program begins on Aug. 30.

PPPL’s apprenticeship program has begun expanding into new departments such as accounting and environment, safety and health. “The apprentices not only personally benefit from working closely with seasoned experts,” Adel said. “They also help transfer knowledge from one generation to another as more senior staff retire.”

Christina Liebrich, the talent acquisition partner in PPPL’s human resources department, detailed a list of benefits that apprentices would be eligible for, including medical, dental, and vision insurance; flexible-spending health savings accounts; disability insurance; retirement and pension plans; life insurance; a generous time-off policy; and tuition reimbursement. Liebrich stressed that apprentices can join employee resource groups at PPPL and take part in community involvement activities like United Way, the annual Communiversity event, the Young Women’s Conference, Science on Saturday, and tours. They could also get discounts on tickets for sporting and cultural events.

Staff in several departments that have apprentices spoke about how much they valued the program. “We are really excited to have apprentices in our department,” said Marc Cohen, the chief information officer and head of the information technology (IT) department. “Apprentices with us get experience in computer-related areas they might not get elsewhere. For instance, we have unique cybersecurity requirements and specialized computer systems for capturing and analyzing data. You likely won’t see these specialized tools in many other places.”

“For decades, PPPL has relied on a dedicated staff of technicians to execute the vision of the engineering and physics staff, and many of the senior technician staff hold lead technician positions that are critical to the success of the work in this field,” said Steven Raftopoulos, PPPL's interim engineering technical infrastructure group head. “But the most senior of our technicians are approaching retirement age and we need to hire more technicians to fill in behind them. The apprenticeship program is one way a technician could get on a pathway to one day fill one of these leadership technical roles.”

Dennis Alvarado, a current apprentice in the IT department who has been at PPPL for six months, spoke about his experience thus far. “Right now, I work primarily in the user services group, which includes staffing the help desk,” he said. “Soon, though, I will be working with the networking group. As an apprentice, you experience new issues and meet a wide range of users. You see something new every day.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science


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