FRCE apprentice program offers trainees opportunity to learn while they earn

Crystal Gent (left), FRCE aircraft mechanical parts repairer apprentice, assists Joshua Maragni, aircraft mechanical parts repairer, in using a crane to lift a nose gearbox assembly for the H-53 helicopter.

Fleet Readiness Center East recently welcomed its second class of apprentices to work at the aircraft repair facility. Twenty new employees reported for duty August 10, as part of a nationally standardized pipeline through which FRCE can hire and train a workforce of highly skilled aircraft mechanics.

The Naval Air Systems Command National Apprenticeship Program is designed to offer qualified applicants the opportunity to work full-time as federal employees, receiving pay and benefits, as they pursue a combination of education and on-the-job training.

“When we bring them in, they don’t have to have any trade background, because we’re going to train them from the ground up,” said Doug Preneveau, FRCE apprentice program administrator. “We’re going to bring them in, welcome them into the FRC, and then we send them to college for two semesters to go through set courses for workforce development, trade theory and technology training.”

The apprentices complete an Industrial Systems Technology certificate at Craven Community College, which is part of the curriculum for an associate’s degree. FRCE pays the full tuition. Once their coursework is complete, they will spend the next three years alternating between on-the-job and classroom training to learn their specific trades. When they complete the four-year-program, they can be hired as permanent journey-level mechanics in trades such as sheet metal mechanics, machinists, pneudraulic system mechanics and aircraft mechanical parts repairers.

One of the new apprentices said the apprentice program offers a good opportunity to gain both training and experience in the same package.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to get your foot in the door with a good organization. They give you all the skills you need to succeed in the position you’re being hired for,” said Branson Caward, who was looking for a solid career path after serving in the Marine Corps and working in a variety of industries. “You can’t find an opportunity like it where they’re going to send you to school, pay you while you’re going to school, and pay for your school. That’s unheard of.”

The first group of nearly 40 apprentices started a year ago in August 2019. Crystal Gent is part of that class, and she has spent the last couple of months learning to repair H-53 gearboxes under the direction of training leaders in FRCE’s gearbox shop. She said the apprentice program checked all the blocks for what she was looking for in a career.

“I really enjoy mechanic work,” Gent said. “I was looking for a government job, and I thought this would be a great way to get in and to do what I like to do. It just so happened that the stars aligned and I got in.”

Preneveau said the apprentice program was in the works for about three years before it welcomed its first class of trainees last year. Naval Air Systems Command standardized the program across its Fleet Readiness Centers, so apprentices at all NAVAIR maintenance facilities will receive the same training and the same certifications. The program has been registered with the Department of Labor on both the state and national levels.

Acceptance into the program is highly competitive. Preneveau said that this year’s class of 20 apprentices was selected from more than 320 applicants. FRCE is scheduled to continue the program over the next several years, hiring apprentices to help grow the workforce of skilled aircraft maintenance professionals. The minimum requirement is a 2.8 grade point average in either high school or college coursework, and a trade background is a plus, but not required. Preneveau recommended that future applicants register with USAJobs.gov, the federal government’s job placement site, to receive notification when recruitment opens for the next apprentice class in early 2021.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” Preneveau said. “It’s a great opportunity to give them a starting point in aviation.”

Gent said she’s excited about the career opportunities she now has due to FRCE’s apprentice program.

“I don’t see myself ever looking for any other place outside FRCE. I love it,” she said “What cooler thing could you possibly think of to work on if you want to be a mechanic besides jets and helicopters?”

FRCE is North Carolina’s largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $835 million. The depot generates combat air power for America’s Marines and naval forces while serving as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.