PPPL apprenticeship program to train highly-skilled technicians is a national model

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
Jan. 3, 2023

Steve Armstrong served in the U.S. Army for three-and-a-half years as an electrician. When he was discharged, he trained to work in heating, ventilation and air conditioning. That’s when he learned about the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s four-year apprentice program in which apprentices receive on-the-job training and classes in cutting-edge technical fields.

“I would say I was lucky. I stumbled upon this apprenticeship, and it worked out for the best,” Armstrong said. “The people I work with are very knowledgeable. They have a lot of real-world knowledge. Whatever question I have, I can get an answer.”

Armstrong is one of 14 apprentices enrolled in PPPL’s four-year apprenticeship program, a nationally recognized program that now serves as a model for other programs. PPPL, which is based at Princeton University and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, was recently named an apprenticeship ambassador by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as part of President Joe Biden’s Apprentice Ambassadorship Program aimed at providing training for high-paying jobs in a range of industries.

The first registered apprenticeship program in fusion energy

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

PPPL’s apprentice program was first started in 2018 by Steve Cowley, PPPL director, based on a similar program at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the United Kingdom. Several people at PPPL played a role in starting the program  including  Andy Carpe, engineering associate; Valeria Riccardo, former head of engineering; Andrea Moten, former deputy director of Human Resources and Jordan Vannoy, former executive director of Human Services and Organizational Development; and Shannon Greco, science education senior program leader.

A growing program

Since it began, the apprenticeship program has grown from four to 14 people, expanding from traditional trades like electrical and mechanical engineering, welding, and HVAC to include fields like information technology (IT), cybersecurity and environment, safety and health (ES&H). The apprentices complete 8,000 hours of paid on-the-job training and 576 hours of technical instruction. 

“Our apprentices are an enormous benefit to the Lab, the state of New Jersey, and the nation,” Cowley said. “They are committed to our mission of developing fusion, a source of clean, safe, and abundant energy, and they bring such vitality to the Lab. I’m so glad to see them here.”

Andrew Zwicker, head of strategic relationships, said the apprentice program is looking for early-career technicians from a variety of backgrounds. “The success of our laboratory depends on us finding the best people we can and that means finding a diverse group of people,” he told audience members interested in becoming apprentices. “So, if you’re thinking about it, you absolutely should do it.” 

“We’re excited because we have immense support from our Lab,” said Diana Adel, the program administrator of the apprenticeship program. “We are training a future workforce that would not only be trained in fusion energy but that will be highly skilled and motivated to work for years to come and have the transfer of knowledge from all the seasoned professionals. “

PPPL invited people considering an apprenticeship, as well as state and national officials, and educators to the laboratory during several in-person and hybrid events in honor of National Apprentice Week Nov. 14 to 18. They learned about the program and saw the apprentices at work doing everything from welding coils for the Facility for Laboratory Reconnection Experiment,  a next-generation collaborative facility that will explore magnetic reconnection, the process responsible for solar flares and other astrophysical phenomenon. Apprentices also demonstrated their work on complex electrical systems for PPPL’s fusion experiment, the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U).

Among the guests were Nicholas Toth, director of the New Jersey Office of Apprenticeship, and Jim Harris, project manager of the Workforce Development-Industry Partnership Unit. “I’m just soaking it all in,” Harris said. “This model seems like it’s on the cutting edge.”

Also attending was Michael Blatt, state director for the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeships. “You’re taking traditional apprenticeships and you’re raising it to this incredibly complex level,” Blatt told PPPL apprentices and PPPL leaders at the National Apprentice Week celebration. “What an advantage to your apprentices. It’s the ability to advance, to come home with that paycheck, to reach into that middle class or above and sustain yourself.”  

Sean Hough, an electronic apprentice, showed visitors the Remote Glow Discharge Experiment , an experiment in the Science Education Laboratory in which users can manipulate a plasma from anywhere in the world. Hough is helping to upgrade, the experiment, as  one of three projects he’s working on, along with the system for a personnel safety system for the NSTX-U. “My work has taken me all over the Lab,” he said.

Dennis Alvarado, one of two information technology apprentices, said he and apprentice Zachary Simpson have learned a great deal about information technology by being assigned to help people throughout the laboratory with their IT issues on the IT Help Desk. “PPPL really wants to lay a strong IT foundation to begin with before advancing more advanced concepts,” he said.

Sheehan Twomey, a fourth-year electrical apprentice, went to vocational school after high school and worked as an electrical technician. “I was skeptical of getting a college degree that I wasn’t going to use; I wanted to get my hands dirty,” he said. Now, after finishing all his technical classes at Mercer County Technical School, he is taking classes at Mercer County College. He said he’d like to join the permanent staff when he finishes his apprenticeship this year. “I would love to stay. I definitely want to join the Lab full-time afterwards,” he said. “This place has a lot to offer.” 

A ”very special place to work”

During a tour for National Apprentice Week, Twomey showed visitors one of two 700-ton steel flywheels on massive motor generators that are used to power the NSTX-U when it is operating. “It’s a very special place to work,” Twomey told visitors. “You’re really never going to work on something like this anywhere else.”

Abby Fellnor, a first-year apprentice who works with Twomey, said she also didn’t want to go straight to college. “I was a little unsure of what I wanted to do with my life before I started this apprenticeship,” she said. “I came to the realization that I like to work with my hands. I like to work hard, but I also like to think. This is an excellent opportunity for people who want to work and learn at the same time.”  

Mike Kozic, a motor generator engineer who is one of Twomey and Fellnor’s mentors, said the experienced technicians have enjoyed teaching the early-career apprentices. “Each of them brings their own characteristics and skills to the group, and they all work together. It’s one of the best parts of the job here. They’re the next generation.”

More information about PPPL’s apprenticeship program is available here.

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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.