Apprentices filling workforce need at Rolls-Royce plant in Prince George

As Rolls-Royce North America continues to equip the latest expansion of its Prince George County plant with high-tech machinery, the company also is recruiting people into an apprenticeship program for manufacturing precision aircraft components.

The apprenticeship program has attracted new employees from 18-year-old recent high school graduates to military veterans and 45-year-old career-switchers.

“You get paid while you are getting trained — for me, that is a plus,” said Sherrell Brown, a 30-year-old mother from Dinwiddie County who joined Rolls-Royce five years ago and is now working to complete the machinist apprenticeship.

Like others in the program, she works full time at the plant while attending classes at John Tyler Community College toward a certification in precision machining.

“I want to get my journeyman’s card, and I have about a year left in that and, when I finish that, I want to start studying mechanical engineering,” Brown said.

Others in the apprenticeship program are relative newcomers to Rolls-Royce. Kyle Odom of Prince George County joined the company’s apprentice program last year after working at a series of what he called “dead-end” jobs.

“My last job was at a deli, cutting sandwich meat and chicken,” said Odom, 23. Then a reference from his father, a specialized machinist, got his foot in the door at Rolls-Royce. “I have been in and out of machine shops all my life, before I could even walk,” he said. “It is something I love.”

The apprenticeship program has been a vital channel for training new employees at the company’s Crosspointe plant, said Lorin Sodell, manufacturing executive at the factory, which makes components for aircraft engines that are used in such planes as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350.

Rolls-Royce, a British company with its U.S. headquarters in Reston, opened the Prince George plant early in 2011 after more than three years of planning, development and construction. The first part of the factory was a 180,000-square-foot rotatives plant, which is now full of high-tech equipment and operating three shifts, five days a week.

“We are essentially already approaching full capacity for that factory,” Sodell said.

In late 2014, the company completed construction on a 90,000-square-foot addition to the plant to make turbine blades. The building is about 50 percent full of machinery, and more equipment is scheduled to be added this year.

“As we bring on equipment, we are bringing on people,” Sodell said. “We are currently hiring people to fill all of the working shifts for that part of the factory.”

Aircraft components need to be fine-tuned at a microscopic level, so operating the machinery requires a lot of training. One of the jobs that Brown does, for instance, involves using a fiber-optic camera to look for microscopic defects in turbine blades.

It takes about three years to complete the apprenticeship program, which includes both on-the-job training and classroom work. Rolls-Royce did not say how many employees have completed the apprenticeship program or how many are currently in the program.

Rolls-Royce covers the cost of tuition for new employees who take the apprenticeship track and enroll in machinist programs offered by community colleges, such as the Precision Machining Technology Program at John Tyler Community College in Chesterfield County.

The typical cost for tuition, fees and textbooks for the program is about $7,300, based on fall 2016 tuition fees and current textbook costs.

“We have built very strong relationships with John Tyler Community College and other community colleges as far away as Danville Community College, and with key four-year universities, as well as many of the local high schools,” Sodell said.

Completing the program at John Tyler requires 44 credit hours of classroom work, most of it focused on technical and machine skills. Students can then go on to complete additional class work and get an associate’s degree.

“It is an excellent model for how to get people back into skilled trades,” said Melinda Miller, interim associate dean for engineering, business and public services at John Tyler Community College.

“We hear about the skills gap constantly, but this is very focused,” Miller said. “We are sure that these students are getting what they need because we have the employer telling us what they need.”

The number of students enrolled in the precision machining program at John Tyler varies, but Rolls-Royce is not the only company to take advantage of it, or to offer reimbursement to employees who enroll, Miller said.

This fall, about 40 students are expected to be enrolled in the program. That includes 16 apprentices. In addition, about 30 high school students are planning to participate in the school’s machining technology program at the Chester campus.

Rolls-Royce has offered after-school work for high school students, who can then join the apprenticeship program as employees after graduation.

Recent high school graduates who have joined the program include Ashton Woods, who worked after school at Rolls-Royce for several months before graduating from Matoaca High School in Chesterfield this year and immediately getting a job. He will be enrolled at John Tyler this fall.

“I am out of high school now, making good money,” Woods said. “It’s a good path.”

Glen Allen High School graduate Duncan Jokisch also worked an after-school job at Rolls-Royce and joined the apprenticeship program after graduation this spring.

Jokisch, a fan of air shows and planes, said his father is an engineer. He sees the apprenticeship program as a gateway to an eventual four-year degree in engineering.

Because of his eyesight, “I can’t exactly become a pilot,” he said. “So I might as well do the next best thing and actually work on the planes. Anything that can get me as close to the actual plane as possible, I enjoy.”

Older, mid-career-switchers in the program include some military vets like Decorress Parrott, who retired from the Army in May 2015 after 23 years. He was a mechanic and an instructor in the Army, so the Rolls-Royce program seemed to be a good fit. “When I was transitioning out, I heard about this program for machinists and I said, ‘Why not? I’ll give it a try,’ ” he said.

Keith Brown had worked in manufacturing for 20 years before joining Rolls-Royce four years ago and entering the apprentice program in his 40s. An artist, Brown said he studied graphic design at Virginia Commonwealth University years ago, but he did not finish his degree because he got married and had children. He now plans to retire from Rolls-Royce.

Carl Bishop, a 35-year-old Dinwiddie resident, joined Rolls-Royce early in 2015 and is now in the apprenticeship program. He had worked at other manufacturing jobs, including the former Qimonda computer chip plant in Henrico County, during his career.

The machinist apprentice program is something he would recommend for other career-changers or students coming out of high school.

“This field does not seem like it is in any danger of going anywhere anytime soon,” he said. “It is definitely a good skill to have once you have completed your machining certificate and you have your journeyman’s card. It is something you can take with you if you have to go somewhere else.”

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