“We choose to go to the moon … and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard …” — President John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 1962
President John F. Kennedy made his famous speech at the beginning of the Apollo space program, which ended with one of the greatest scientific and engineering accomplishments — landing on the moon. Today, addressing one of the greatest existential threats of our time, the climate crisis, requires the nation to come together again with a singular goal — develop safe, unlimited, clean electricity available without emitting the greenhouse gases that are responsible for our warming planet and the extreme weather conditions that accompany it.
Fusion energy, which powers the sun and stars, is the perfect source of safe and unlimited electricity without greenhouse gases. The worldwide effort to develop fusion energy began more than 70 years ago right here in New Jersey at Princeton University and what is now known as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Today, PPPL remains the long-standing leader in the science and innovation of fusion energy. Yet to land this project on the moon will require recruiting the most talented people we can find — not just the scientists and engineers who will design these future fusion-energy power plants, but the highly skilled workforce that will build one of the most complicated devices ever imagined.
Finding and training the next generation will not be easy. After all, one does not learn how to build a “star on earth” in a typical classroom. But there is a way, one that provides the hands-on training to build these complicated machines that can heat and hold onto a “star” and turn the energy produced into electricity, based on a model that dates back to the Middle Ages and has been used in the United States for generations: apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships, most often associated with the building trades — plumbers, electricians, welders, and so forth — are growing rapidly in New Jersey and throughout the United States. Besides these traditional fields, there are new apprenticeship programs in emerging areas such as computer chip-manufacturing, renewable energy and cybersecurity. As the types of apprenticeships expand, so do the opportunities, and a field that was most often associated with men has become much more diverse with an influx of women and people of all backgrounds becoming apprentices.
As a prime sponsor of legislation that recognizes November 14 – 18 as New Jersey Apprenticeship Week, I am thrilled that we will now honor those who build our roads, bridges, and tunnels and who got their start as apprentices, learning from the highly skilled men and women who came before them.
In New Jersey, under the leadership of Gov. Phil Murphy and Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo, we have seen a significant increase in those choosing apprenticeships as part of their career path. According to the federal Department of Labor statistics, for fiscal year 2021, New Jersey had 8,087 active apprenticeships, including 2,710 new apprentices. And more and more, those apprentices are branching out into new technologies, especially in the energy sector, which includes solar and offshore wind.
At PPPL, where I work, we started the first-of-its-kind registered apprenticeship program in fusion energy sciences and engineering. Our apprenticeship program was created in 2019 to help fill PPPL’s technical workforce needs, both today and in the future.
The PPPL apprenticeship program, which partners with the departments of labor at both the state and federal levels, along with educational institutions in New Jersey, offers participants rewarding careers as technicians in the cutting-edge field of fusion energy research. This program has quickly become a model for similar apprenticeship programs across our state and across the country.
The skills we teach our apprentices are unique. For example, our apprentices learn how to weld together pieces of a machine that replicates the conditions of outer space; they learn to build the power systems that help heat hydrogen gas to temperatures hotter than the center of the sun; they make sure that our computer networks are fast, reliable and safe from hacking. And when these apprentices have completed their training, they will work for us, work for other fusion energy research organizations or transfer their highly specialized skills to other companies that are part of New Jersey’s growing innovation economy.
As every president since Kennedy has understood, the United States, in order to remain competitive, must continue to be a global leader when it comes to innovation and keeping our eyes on the ball — that is, focusing our energies more to the future rather than the past.
New Jersey’s economic future is dependent on developing the next generation of skilled labor across the wide spectrum of industries that our fast-paced future is sure to demand. Apprenticeships will play a key role in our future by providing high-quality jobs for our expanding innovation economy.
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