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Observatory is growing its own talent with help from RCBI

Machinist apprentice Priscilla Grimes operates a lathe in the Mechanical Division of the Green Bank Observatory. Grimes is participating in an apprenticeship program developed by the Robert C. Byrd Institute at Marshall University to assist the Observatory in passing on the skills of experienced employees to a new generation of workers.
Through an apprenticeship program developed in collaboration with the Robert C. Byrd Institute at Marshall University, the Green Bank Observatory is developing a pipeline of skilled workers to keep its array of radio telescopes and other instruments operational. Photos courtesy of Green Bank Observatory

The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Observatory has teamed with the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) at Marshall University to develop the skilled workforce it needs to maintain operations of its numerous radio telescopes and other instruments, observing the uni- verse to unlock the mysteries of outer space.

The Observatory’s Mechanical Division manufactures large structural parts for the instruments and smaller high-precision receiver components from aluminum, brass, copper and steel.

Like many private machine shops, the Mechanical Division faces the prospect of losing highly trained machinists to retirement. Several of the division’s nine employees are approaching retirement age, said Tracy Samples, human resources manager for the Observatory.

“There’s virtually no better option in our area than to grow our own talent,” Samples said.

RCBI’s Apprenticeship Works initiative provides the framework, support and training to do just that. Through the nationwide advanced manufacturing apprenticeship partnership, RCBI assists companies and organizations in 19 states in establishing registered apprenticeship programs in 20 manufacturing occupations.

RCBI worked with Samples and Observatory staff to create a customized apprenticeship program that ensures the technical know-how of experienced staff will be passed on to employees who are early in their careers. Priscilla Grimes and Nathaniel Langston work as computer-numerical-control (CNC) operator and programmer machinist apprentices at the Observatory. Through Apprenticeship Works, they are completing on-the-job training under an experienced mentor and related online training as they build their skills.

RCBI delivers train-the-trainer instruction and related online courses, pro- vides a tracking system to record progress, serves as a consultant and covers a large part of the cost of implementing the apprenticeship program. The program is flexible. It can be changed to fit evolving needs and implemented on a schedule convenient for Samples and the Observatory team.

“The Green Bank Observatory is a worldwide leader in astronomical discovery,” said Lucinda Curry, RCBI’s director of Apprenticeship Works. “We’re proud that our proven, practical and cost-effective apprenticeship program can deliver solutions to bridge the skills gap in the Observatory’s Mechanical Division as it works to solve the mysteries of the universe.”

Apprenticeship Works is supported by an American Apprenticeship Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. To learn more about the program, contact Curry at lcurry@rcbi.org or 304.720.7742.

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