PPPL receives state grant for its growing apprentice program providing on-the-job training and education to early career technicians

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
June 16, 2022

PPPL has received a grant from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development for its innovative apprentice program, which offers on-the-job training and classes for early-career mechanics, machinists, electricians, information technology technicians and other technical professionals.

PPPL’s apprenticeship program is the first registered program in fusion energy and engineering in the United States. The four-year program trains early-career technicians with the necessary skills to help build and operate a fusion energy experiment.

PPPL is partnering with both the U.S. Department of Labor (U.S. DOL) and the N.J. Department of Labor’s apprenticeship offices. The $27,000 grant is from the Growing Apprenticeship in Nontraditional Sectors (GAINS) grant program, which is part of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s program to expand USDOL Office of Apprenticeship-approved apprenticeships in high-tech, non-traditional industries in New Jersey through the New Jersey Apprenticeship Network.

“I am delighted that PPPL’s apprenticeship program is thriving,” said Steve Cowley, PPPL’s director. “We need a new generation of skilled technicians to provide the much-needed support to bring fusion energy to the grid.”

Based on program at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

Cowley originally came up with the idea based on a similar program at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the laboratory he headed in the United Kingdom. Several people played a role in starting the program in 2018, including former head of engineering Valeria Riccardo, Andrea Moten and Jordan Vannoy, of Human Resources, and Shannon Greco, Science Education senior program leader.

The apprentices train in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, information technology, welding, machining, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). They complete 8,000 hours of paid on-the-job training and 576 hours of technical instruction at Mercer County Technical Schools.

“The partnership between Mercer County Technical Schools (MCTS) and PPPL is a dynamic one that provides amazing opportunities,” said David Nash, district internship coordinator for MCTS. “The career pathways offered are clearly defined and pertain directly to each individual’s talents and skills. We look forward to supplying PPPL with the next generation of trades people as we unlock renewable green energy sources.”

Members of the PPPL apprentice team recently attended Eastern Seaboard Apprenticeship Conference (ESAC) in Atlantic City where they networked and attended presentations from DOL representatives and different apprenticeship programs. They included Diana Adel, the program manager, Andrew Zwicker, head of Communications and Public Outreach, Kristen Fischer, chief financial officer and head of business operations, and Dana Martin, Fischer’s executive assistant. Also attending were Kevin Purdy and Aaron Floyd, two of the four original apprentices from the first cohort in 2019.

Zwicker said PPPL’s program serves as a model for other apprenticeship programs. “It is a win-win program for the Laboratory and the apprentices, and it prepares them for today’s high-tech industries.”

PPPL’s program is expanding

The program is expanding under the leadership of Adel, who officially began heading the program in February. She is pearheading efforts to create positions in non-traditional apprenticeship fields, such as IT, business operations, and facilities. Along with support from the apprentice team, Kristen Fischer, Andrew Zwicker, Andy Carpe, Al VonHalle, Shannon Greco, Dana Martin, Barbara Harrison, and Christina Liebrich. “I’m very excited to take on this challenge of expanding this program, building new partnerships, and working with the apprentices to build a good foundation for their careers in their field of choice,” Adel said.

The size of the apprenticeship program is also growing from four in the first year of the program to 10, with at least five more expected to join the staff at the end of the summer. “I appreciate the support from all the mentors and trainers that provide daily mentoring and on the job training to our growing number of apprentices. This program’s success is possible due to the lab-wide support and dedication to the apprentices,” Adel said.

A place “where you can build things”

Purdy is a mechanical technician who is attending Mercer County Technical School. He is working on the personal safety system for PPPL’s fusion experiment, the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U). “I didn’t think there was a place like this where you can build things and show your creative side and it’s a lab atmosphere,” Purdy said. “It’s not about production, you’re more concerned about making sure it’s great quality.”

Aaron Floyd, an electrical technician, is currently working on the electrical systems for the massive motor generators that help power the NSTX-U. He completed his course requirements at Mercer County Technical School and is now taking courses in electrical engineering and technology at Mercer County Community College. “I’m learning a lot of new things,” he said. “I’m enjoying the education part of it.”

Purdy said the apprentice program has expanded since it first began. “I like that there’s different departments now. There’s HVAC, IT and welding.”

Both said they were learning a great deal from technicians who have been at the Laboratory for decades and worked on PPPL’s Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, which generated a record amount of fusion power in the early 1990s. “We’re going to soak up as much information as we can,” Floyd said. “There’s still so much we don’t know. It’s kind of crazy.”

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 largest single 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, please visit science.energy.gov.

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PPPL is mastering the art of using plasma — the fourth state of matter — to solve some of the world's toughest science and technology challenges. Nestled on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey, our research ignites innovation in a range of applications including fusion energy, nanoscale fabrication, quantum materials and devices, and sustainability science. The University manages the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the nation’s single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. Feel the heat at https://energy.gov/science and https://www.pppl.gov.