Scientific method: Apprenticeship propels student from technical school to Princeton lab

Growing up in Mercer County near Princeton University, Sheehan Twomey remembers seeing the signs for Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

“I didn’t really know what it was,” Twomey said. “I only knew it was affiliated with Princeton and most things associated with Princeton University are pretty good.”

Now, Twomey, 19, who graduated from Mercer County Technical School in June, is working at the world-renowned lab filled with top physicists and brilliant doctoral students who conduct experiments that could eventually lead to a new source of energy.

While Twomey doesn’t have any formal education in physics, he is becoming an essential part of the technical crew that ensures the experiments go off without a hitch.

Twomey’s path from Mercer County Technical Schools student to PPPL employee is part of a new apprenticeship program designed to build the pipeline of critical electrical technician, electronic technician and mechanical technician occupations at the lab. 

The program, which was announced by Gov. Phil Murphy this summer, is a partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory, the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development and the U.S. Department of Labor.

Mercer County Technical Schools won a grant from the Department of Labor & Workforce Development to design a training program to prepare students for the technical apprenticeships and provide the classroom instruction that is an important complement to their on-the-job training.

Twomey never thought he’d work at PPPL when he began attending Mercer County Technical High School part time during his senior year at Hopewell High School. He initially did his work-study as a carpenter’s apprentice, followed by a stint working alongside an electrician. 

Twomey puts his training to the test in the lab.

Then, one day, Shannon Swilley Greco, a science education senior program associate from PPPL, came to talk to Twomey’s class about the new pre-apprenticeship program at the lab. Twomey liked what he heard and immediately applied. He was accepted and worked in the various parts of the lab. When his pre-apprenticeship ended, he applied for the four-year paid apprenticeship program and starting working in September.

The apprenticeship program was started by PPPL Director Steve Cowley, who saw similar technical training programs work in England when he was head of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. 

“Technicians can fix anything, they can build anything, they play an incredible part in all aspects of our laboratory,” Cowley said.  “We want to train technicians to bring them on to be part of the PPPL family.”

Twomey makes $15 an hour working at the lab, while attending Mercer County Technical School two nights a week in a specially designed instructional program that includes the basics that all electricians must learn, but also offers classes to support the type of work he’ll be doing at PPPL.

In the lab, Twomey works on calibrating fault detector cards located in giant rectifiers that convert AC power to DC power needed for the experiments. Rectifiers perform a similar function as transformers that are used to power computers, except they take up a room the size of a warehouse.

“This was a good way for me to commit to something like college, but I’m not spending that money,” Twomey said. “Plus, I’m getting paid to be an apprentice here and I’m going to school for free.”

Greco said PPPL needs apprentices like Twomey to replace many of the lab’s existing technicians, who are nearing retirement age.

“PPPL has highly specific needs in terms of technical skills that are just not present in the workforce. And many of PPPL’s staff are approaching retirement. We need to transfer their knowledge to new technicians,” Greco said. “By working with MCTS, we can reliably find motivated, talented apprentices who already have a technical foundation and train them in the exact skills they need to contribute to our mission of developing fusion energy to the world.”