PPPL’s first apprentices graduate from the program and begin new jobs as technicians

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
Nov. 29, 2023

Four years ago, four early career technicians joined a brand new program at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) aimed at training them in the highly technical skills needed for PPPL to carry out its mission of developing fusion as a safe, clean and virtually limitless energy source.

They came to the Lab at dawn to work alongside senior technicians who have been at PPPL for decades. The apprentices sometimes ended their day late at night after attending technical school or college classes. 

Their efforts paid off when Aaron Floyd, along with Robby Bongiovanni, Kevin Purdy, and Sheehan Twomey, became the first graduates of PPPL’s Apprenticeship Program in a recent ceremony at the Lab, kicking off National Apprenticeship Week on Nov. 13. The program now has 14 apprentices working in a variety of fields, including information technology and cybersecurity. The apprentices complete 6,000 to 8,000 hours of paid on-the-job training and 576 hours of technical instruction.

VIDEO: Learn about the program from several apprentices and their mentors

(Video credit: Michael Livingston, PPPL)

A “life changing” program

“When I came here, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Floyd recalled. “I thought I’d be an electrician. This is not the job I envisioned, but it’s been life changing. I have a new perspective on teamwork and camaraderie. The people I work with every day are truly stand-up individuals. They are the mentors who helped me grow into the person I am.”

PPPL was named an apprenticeship ambassador by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as part of President Joe Biden’s Apprenticeship Ambassador Initiative aimed at providing training for high-paying jobs in various industries. Among those attending the graduation was Michael Blatt, state director for the DOL Office of Apprenticeships.

PPPL’s program is the first registered apprenticeship program in the U.S. focused on fusion energy and engineering. PPPL also received a $27,000 grant from the Growing Apprenticeship in Nontraditional Sectors (GAINS) program from the DOL and the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The grant is part of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s program to expand DOL apprenticeships in high-tech industries in the state.

Based on a U.K. program

The apprenticeship program was the brainchild of Steve Cowley, PPPL director, who created a similar program at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the U.K., where he was the director before coming to PPPL in 2018. “I never have to question why this Lab exists — we’re trying to make fusion energy,” Cowley told the audience at the graduation. “When fusion energy does work in the future, it’s going to be powering the planet for as long as the planet is around. To do that, we have to have all these different skills, and these four apprentice graduates are going to be a critical part of it.”

Robert Asaro-Angelo, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, also congratulated the graduates. He noted that Gov. Murphy has made apprenticeship programs part of his program to train highly skilled workers throughout the state. Asaro-Angelo recalled being at PPPL when the program launched four years ago. “I was eager to brag that apprentices are playing a role in fusion energy research,” he said. “I talk about this during almost every speech I give up and down the state, all over the country: Apprentices are important in every field every day.” 

Group shot of apprentices with Department of Energy, Princeton University, PPPL and New Jersey and U.S. Department of Labor officials.
The graduates with PPPL staff and officials attending the ceremony, from left: Diana Adel, program manager; Sandy Rogan, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Site Office; graduate Sheehan Twomey; Steve Cowley, PPPL director; graduate Aaron Floyd; Michael Blatt, New Jersey director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship; graduate Kevin Purdy; Robert Asaro-Angelo, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development; graduate Robby Bongiovanni; and Chelle Reno, assistant vice president for operations for PPPL. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications.) 

The apprentices viewed a pre-recorded congratulations video from Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. “Big science requires a big ecosystem to thrive. The entire team is critical, and skilled workers are an important component of why science works the way it does,” Berhe said. “The Office of Science applauds PPPL and their efforts with this program. We’re hoping to expand this to our national laboratories.” 

Andrew Zwicker, head of strategic relationships, welcomed the graduates to a new phase of their careers; they’ve all been hired as PPPL technicians. “While we’re graduating the four of them today, we’re actually just welcoming them into the PPPL family,” he said.

Taking a risk with a new program

The four graduates took a chance by joining a brand new program four years ago, Zwicker said. “The four of you took a personal risk to join us,” he told them. He and others thanked Diana Adel, the program manager, for leading the program for the past few years. “I’m so proud of these graduates,” Adel said. “They worked really hard to get here.”

VIDEO: Diana Adel describes the apprenticeship program at PPPL

(Video credit: Michael Livingston, PPPL)

Zwicker also acknowledged the work of several people who played a role in starting the program in 2018, including Engineering Associate Andy Carpe, Kristen Fischer, chief financial officer; Andrea Moten of Human Resources, Valeria Riccardo of the Engineering Division, Shannon Swilley Greco of the Science Education Department, and Al Von Halle, a former PPPL engineer.  

Carpe told the graduates they have fulfilled a promise he made to them four years ago: “I told you if you really apply yourselves as a group, you would be super technicians.” He presented them with metal plaques engraved by technicians in PPPL’s shops.

Parents and friends tour PPPL

Parents and friends joined the graduates on a tour of the Lab and saw some of the major experiments on which the apprentices worked, including the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) and the Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiments (FLARE). 

Family members said they were proud of their graduates and grateful for the program. “It provided him with a wonderful career,” said Floyd’s mother, Leslie Floyd. “He took a chance on this very new program, and it paid off beautifully.”

The four graduates

Robby Bongiovanni

Graduate Robby Bongiovanni, a water systems operator, at work.

Graduate Robby Bongiovanni, a water systems operator, at work. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications.)

Robby Bongiovanni, of Hamilton, New Jersey, a mechanical engineering technician who is now a water systems operator, said he didn’t know what he was getting into when he joined the apprenticeship program four years ago. Before signing up for the apprenticeship, he had taken vocational training at Mercer County Technical School and did apprenticeships in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); plumbing; and electrical trades. He said he expected a building maintenance apprenticeship but soon found himself training in numerous technical areas, including machining, welding, mechanical and learning to read blueprints. 

“Being a mechanical technician is pretty interesting because you get pulled into different projects,” Bongiovanni said. He is now enjoying his job as a water systems operator, in which he helps maintain the water systems that cool the NSTX-U. “The people are great, and the work experience is like nothing I’ve ever had,” he said.

“We’re very proud,” said Bongiovanni’s grandmother Judy Kwiatowski. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to him, and he did it on his own. It’s fabulous!”

Aaron Floyd

Graduate Aaron Floyd, a power systems technician, in the field coil power conversion (FCPC) area of PPPL where he works.

Graduate Aaron Floyd, a power systems technician, in the field coil power conversion (FCPC) area of PPPL where he works. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications.)

Aaron Floyd, of Ewing, New Jersey, a power systems technician, finished his technical courses in the first two years of the apprenticeship and is now pursuing an associate’s degree in electronics engineering at Mercer County College. “I’m glad this is the job that I signed up for, and I don’t miss being an electrician,” Floyd said. “This is a lot more involved and challenging.” 

“It’s definitely worth the four years,” he added. “The knowledge you’re going to have is so unique and so special. You’re working on so many different machines, and you’re learning skills.”

Kevin Purdy

Graduate Kevin Purdy

Graduate Kevin Purdy, an engineering mechanical technician, in front of the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade, one of the experiments he worked on as an apprentice. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications)

Kevin Purdy, of North Hanover, New Jersey, an engineering mechanical technician, was a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business from Rider University when he joined the apprenticeship program. In his four years as an apprentice, he worked on the NSTX-U, FLARE and other projects. “It gave me a better understanding of what we do here, and I learned different skills that can’t be found elsewhere like machining, auto computer-aided design and vacuum systems,” he said.

Sheehan Twomey

Sheehan Twomey, a power systems technician, in the FCPC area.
Sheehan Twomey, a power systems technician, in the FCPC area. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications.)

Sheehan Twomey, of Ewing, New Jersey, a power systems technician, said he at first felt intimidated by the four-year commitment to the apprenticeship program. “It was hard to imagine completing the program given the length of it,” he recalled. “You just take it day to day. I met amazing mentors who brought me through all the technical aspects of being a technician here, and slowly but surely, I could envision myself having a job here and completing the apprenticeship.”

VIDEO: Sheehan Twomey describes his experience in the PPPL apprenticeship program.

(Video credit: Michael Livingston, PPPL)

Twomey finished the technical courses halfway through the program and is pursuing an electrical engineering associate’s degree at Mercer County College along with his fellow graduate Floyd. He appreciates being part of PPPL’s fusion energy mission. “This place seemed like more than a place to work; it was a place to learn and to grow,” Twomey said. “There were many reasons to stay, but working for a place with a mission that’s related to all of our jobs is kind of empowering. You get to be part of the solution and not everybody gets that chance, so it’s a special opportunity.” 

A gallery of photos is available at this link.


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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.