ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- The Army's Rock Island Arsenal - Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center has created a legacy for training journeyman machinists for almost 110 years.
"The Apprenticeship Program is a program where a journeyman-level person in any skilled trade teaches a younger person who doesn't know anything," said Don Gordon, division chief, Tool and Gage Division, Machining Division East, RIA-JMTC. "So in the machining trades, it's taking a block of steel and using cutting tools, high precision measuring tools, files, other types of inspection equipment and creating a finished product."
This program is currently in full-swing with four classes running concurrently comprised of 45 apprentices at various stages of the four-year program.
"The benefit for an employee is they get two years of school in a four-year apprenticeship program," said Gordon. "When they finish the program, they get a journeyman machinist card and they have zero debt. Their job is to learn and they get paid for it!"
The four-year program begins with schooling and basic machining skills.
The first year is used to immerse apprentices in working on a shop floor for the government. The groundwork of machining is laid with apprentices using hacksaws and files to create basic projects, according to Gordon.
"They learn all manual machines first because I'm still of the mentality that if you don't know how to crank a handle on a mill, then you don't know what's going to happen when you program a CNC (computer numerical control) mill," said Gordon.
"It's grueling and it's hard work and the point of it, I'm assuming, is to build character for one, but also to give you an appreciation for the technology that we have and I'm all about it," agreed Jonathan Helms, RIA-JMTC spring maker and former apprentice in the program.
In their second year, apprentices continue their schooling while also expanding their machining skills with more precision work and hands-on in the shop environment, according to Gordon. This is also when they begin rotating through different areas within the factory.
"They get a full, rounded-out curriculum of what goes on at JMTC," said Gordon.
At RIA-JMTC apprentices are expected to be more of a jack-of-all-trades in machining so their training is more extensive than other journeyman programs.
"Apprenticeship at the Rock Island Arsenal is not the same as an apprenticeship in a private sector tool-and-dye-job shop or a machine shop. Most of them are tailored: they want a lathe operator, they want a mill operator," said Gordon. "We want an all-around machinist so we start them from the basics and then we start rotating them around the shops."
The final two years are spent entirely on the shop floor with full hands-on training and honing their machinist skills.
"Once they start getting into third and fourth years they spend more time in the areas they're going to be assigned; we know we're going to have people in machining, grinding, small arms and field-service gages," said Gordon.
Attrition is a real concern within RIA-JMTC, with about 28-33% of personnel ready to retire or move into different positions, according to Gordon. This makes the apprentice program vital to fill those positions.
"Having 60 (apprentices) in the program at all times and 15 that are graduating soon keeps a good pool of candidates," he said.
Apprentices in the program come from various experiences, not necessarily with a trade skill background. Some are temporary or term employees already working in the factory while others, like Helms, are from the local community. Helms for instance, made 80-foot aircraft hoses for a local company before applying for the apprenticeship program.
Another former apprentice, Susan Somes was a tree, shrub and lawn technician before applying to the program.
"I almost didn't do it because when I saw the ad in the paper I had no idea what a machinist did and it didn't really say anything. I'm glad that I did apply. I absolutely love it," said Somes. "I knew absolutely nothing about machining before I started. My only regret is that I didn't see it sooner, like 30 years sooner."
For apprentices attending the program, Gordon says to keep a few things in mind.
"Keep an open mind, apply yourself 100%, go to school and ask for help when it's needed," he said.
Somes encourages those completing the program to give it their all and really apply themselves.
"Don't just let it go day-by-day to collect a paycheck and not get anything out of it. Put your all into it, learn what you can while the means are there," she said. "You get out of it what you put into it. I challenged myself all the time when I was there because just getting a passing grade was not good enough for me. I had to compete with myself."
Apprenticeship program class seats are posted on USAJOBS at www.usajob.gov.