Students build knowledge of machinist trade during Lab's first-ever virtual Manufacturing Workshop

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t prevent local high school students from learning what it’s like to be one of the more than 150 machinists who work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) during the Materials Engineering Division’s (MED) Manufacturing Workshop, held April 20-22. 

Students attended the three-day workshop virtually after their school days ended, where they were introduced to the unique work LLNL machinists do, the many available career avenues and opportunities at the Lab and the Machinist Apprenticeship program, which provides entry-level machinists with the training they need to become certified in California. The award-winning program has graduated 190 machinist apprentices since 1954.

Through the course of the event, attendees learned about work on National Ignition Facility (NIF) target fabrication and optics, advanced metal and polymer 3D printing, laser processing and etching, electroplating and part verification, as well as the cutting-edge equipment used in the Lab’s Main Bay and MED machine shops. The students also gained exposure to the special techniques and materials used to support NIF, the High Explosives Applications Facility, the Computing directorate and other programs.

“This was a great opportunity to interact with students across the local area and give them a little insight into how manufacturing impacts the Laboratory and overall national security,” said LLNL’s Manufacturing and Engineering Section Leader Rich Seugling. “The trades are really an important part of the success of the Lab and industries across the Bay Area. There are new technologies and areas of opportunity, so it’s a good thing for students to see early in their career before they really get started, to get a broader view of all the activities or types of manufacturing available on-site and generally.”

As the workshop progressed, machinist apprentice Daniel Hoffman took students through the entire process of creating a commemorative keychain for the event, from initial design to finished product, covering procedures such as plating, cutting and engraving, inspection and final assembly. The keychains were mailed to each student following the workshop. Each day, the workshop also highlighted current and former machinist apprentices, who spoke about their individual paths to working at LLNL and engaged in Q&A sessions with the students. 

Machinist apprentice Dawn Hill said she didn’t know what she wanted to do when she graduated from high school but decided to enter the apprentice program after exploring machining in community college. She is now in her final semester at Modesto Junior College while working as a Lab machinist. Hill said she wanted to take the opportunity to tell students about alternatives to four-year college so they could make informed decisions about their future. 

“It’s very common for this generation to be told that you need to go to a university to succeed. It was what I was told throughout high school, and yet there is an epidemic of student debt and degrees that don’t result in lucrative careers,” Hill said. “I want these kids to know that having an end goal is more important than going to a university, and if continuing school is unappealing, there are other successful and fulfilling careers out there.”

“Everybody has had to deal with new challenges (due to the pandemic), and I can only imagine how difficult it is to try to map out your life at a time like this,” she added. “But I believe we were successful in showing how amazing the Lab is and gave the attendees something to consider in moving forward with their lives.”

LLNL senior machinist Jesus Gonzalez graduated from the apprenticeship program last year and is a full-time employee. Gonzalez said he felt “indebted” to promote the program and the machinist trade, which he didn’t know anything about until after high school because his school lacked a machine or metal shop.

“I feel that the workshop could provide students with similar skills and passions, exposure to machine shop work and inspire them to pursue the trade,” Gonzalez said. “I think if I had the opportunity to attend a workshop like this, I would have done it multiple years. I hope that next year we can return to normal, and students can attend it in person rather than virtual.”

The first-ever virtual edition of the workshop did allow attendees to take tours of the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory and the Center for Micro & Nanotechnology (with Materials Engineering Division Leader Chris Spadaccini) from the comfort of their homes. The following day, NIF certified laser safety officer Jamie King took students on a virtual tour of NIF, where they learned of the importance of machinists to target fabrication. To conclude the event, students learned about machining job opportunities and acquiring skills through the community college system from Mark Martin of Bay Area Manufacturing Careers and Scott Miner, a welding teacher at Las Positas College.

With an interest in turning science fiction into reality, Dublin High School junior Romyr Concepcion said the fact that NIF served as the USS Enterprise’s warp core in the film "Star Trek: Into Darkness" was a big influence on his initial interest in LLNL. Concepcion said he plans to pursue mechanical engineering and robotics and was drawn to the workshop because it combined his interests in manufacturing and fabrication with the Lab’s unique environment.

“Although it did not change my overall goals, the workshop definitely helped me clarify the stepping stones needed to achieve my goals,” Concepcion said. “Having specific programs to look out for and potentially apply to is a lot more meaningful than having a general idea of where you want to go, but not how you want to go there. Also, the segments where they went over their network of community college programs and apprenticeships helped me to build alternate pathways toward my goals in case my plans don't work out.”

Granada High School sophomore Connor Goralka said he wanted to attend the event because of his enthusiasm for machining processes and general manufacturing. He plans to pursue work in a scientific field, most likely in the biotechnical space. 

“I think a career at LLNL would be an interesting consideration for the future,” Goralka said. “Overall, I had a great time in this workshop and learned many valuable things about opportunities and machinery in the field of manufacturing.”

Organizers said despite the pandemic and virtual format, the workshop achieved what they set out to do — expose young people to the opportunities available to them in the machinist trade and provide a forum for interacting with apprentices and mentors. 

“The workshop was a great success, providing a means to share the great work of the machining and manufacturing efforts of the Laboratory and inspiring these young makers with a productive career path ahead,” said Joanna Albala, manager of the Science Education program. 

“Putting together this workshop during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging,” added LLNL’s Main Bay Machine Shop Supervisor and Apprenticeship Manager Jason Carroll. “Our team was able to create a dynamic presentation that the kids have responded very well to. My hope is to see some of the attendees in the future applying for our Machinist Apprenticeship.”

About 15 students from area high schools attended the workshop via Webex. Attendees were selected based on their interest level in manufacturing, their experience working with machine tools and expectations for a career in the field, organizers said. 

For more, see the web and YouTube video.