By Miles BrownDecember 6, 2019
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. - Finding qualified, technically proficient maintenance technicians to support Army readiness presents a recurring challenge across the Army. Finding technicians with the specialized training and experience to calibrate Army test, measurement and diagnostic equipment (TMDE) can often be down-right difficult.
The U.S. Army TMDE Activity (USATA) leadership team on Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, needed to find new ways to fill vacancies across their worldwide organization. With necessity being the mother of invention, an apprenticeship program was born.
According to Dr. Myra Gray, USATA Executive Director, "The Army must maintain a robust calibration program to ensure Army readiness around the world."
"Our calibration enterprise assures TMDE reliability and accuracy across the Army," Gray said. "And the backbone of our success is our calibration workforce. USATA's metrology professionals enable Army readiness through accuracy, and this new apprenticeship program will bolster our workforce for years to come."
The two-year apprenticeship program starts with a six-month introduction to electronics and calibration techniques at the USATA headquarters. Upon completion of this basic course, the apprentices transfer to different calibration laboratories across USATA to continue their education and training during an 18-month on-the-job training (OJT) phase. At the end of apprenticeship program, these trainees, five in the inaugural class, will enter the Army workforce as journeyman calibration technicians.
According to Martin Roggio, USATA director of Management and Operations Directorate, the apprenticeship program requires major buy-in from both the organization and the trainees.
All of the program applicants had to agree to pay their own way to Redstone Arsenal to attend the initial training blocks. The apprentices actually start as Wage Trainee 00 and every six months they receive an increase in pay, up to their full performance level as a WG-11 at the end of two years.
"They all had to pay their way here, which shows their level of commitment, and we committed to six months of classroom training, after which we will move them to a calibration lab for OJT," said Roggio.
The USATA team built this program from the ground up because the pool of experienced calibration technicians leaving active duty or technical schools is not sufficient to meet the Army's needs. USATA is authorized a total of 640 people, but they have around 100 vacancies - many are calibration technician slots, said Roggio.
Back in the 1980s, the Army had more than 1,000 active-duty calibrators. Now that total is closer to 160 technicians, and not all of those military veterans will continue calibrating after their active-duty service time ends, according to Gary Davenport, the USATA chief of the Requirement, Publications Management and Training Branch.
"We [initially] hired two prior military service TMDE instructors to teach our apprentices everything from basic electronics to more advanced calibration techniques," said Davenport. "The idea is to immerse them in the [calibration] field so when they move to the OJT phase, they already have a foundation in metrology principles to build on as they grow to become calibration technicians."
Setting up the initial basic metrology program on Redstone Arsenal required more than just hiring a couple of instructors. The USATA team needed to create an electronics and calibration training environment and classroom, complete with a suite of TMDE calibration standards and test equipment needed to build that foundation, according to Davenport.
They added classroom space through a renovation project and purchased electronic-training equipment and software students will use to learn basic electronic principles. Then, the newly hired instructors had to write the training program and develop training exercises to challenge and develop the apprentices' skills.
"We started from scratch, developing our training program based on our years of experience and some old lesson plans," said Tony Odom, a USATA apprentice program instructor. With all the new calibration standards and ever-changing TMDE in the Army inventory, the instructors were challenged every time they started writing a new block of instruction, said Odom.
The curriculum offers the trainees a deep-dive into component-level electronics right from the start. All of students in the initial class are military veterans, but not all have electronics backgrounds. Jessie Cook, an apprentice trainee who moved to Redstone Arsenal from Oregon to join the program, served as a hydraulics technician in the Army.
"I have my aircraft power plant license and I have done some component work, but I don't have a lot of electronics experience," said Cook.
At this point of his training, just a few months into the basic course, Cook finds the course challenging, yet rewarding.
"I have some experience with mechanical devices like micrometers and torque wrenches but very limited exposure to electronic TMDE," said Cook. "[The course] is a lot different than I am use to...I have a lot to practice on and learn."
Once the apprentices complete the initial course work, they will move to one of USATA's many laboratories across the country for the OJT phase. That is what makes USATA's apprenticeship program unique in the Army, according to Roggio.
"Most apprenticeship programs across the Army train new apprentices at the same location they will work after completing the program," said Roggio. "Our apprentices will end up moving twice in the first two years and then be eligible to apply for open positions at any of our calibration laboratories worldwide."
With more than 40 locations across the Army, these newly minted metrologists will have many options once they complete the program.
"It was imperative that we developed a new source for quality calibration technicians to replace the experienced professionals we lose every year due to attrition," said Gray. "Our new apprenticeship program is just one of the approaches we have implemented to get healthy across the Activity. We hope to add 10 to 12 new metrologists each year once this program reaches full maturity."
The apprentices in the first class were selected using the Delegated Examining Unit (DEU) hiring process which provides a higher priority to military veterans. Subsequent classes may be advertised differently to expand the pool of applicants. All vacancies are announced via the USAJOBS website and the next class of calibration technician apprentice slots will hit the website early next year. The next class will start in March, 2020.