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Fermilab program aims to help veterans find work in tech fields while offsetting wave of retirements

Navy veteran Frederick Davis is one of about two dozen veterans who so far have taken advantage of Fermilab's VetTech internship program, which offers summer work that can lead to full-time employment at the government-funded laboratory.

REIDER HAHN, FERMILAB/TNS

By DENISE CROSBY | The Beacon-News | Published: November 20, 2018

CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — Growing up in Chicago, a smart kid who studied only enough in school to get by, Frederick Davis turned to the military — the Navy, in fact — to “get me on track” in life.

As it turned out, despite thinking of himself as “mechanically inclined,” Davis possessed a technical aptitude which moved him from a job as diesel tech to being in charge of the calibration shop aboard his ship.

Even better, the young man noted, “I realized this is what I like doing.”

Still, when Davis entered civilian life after five and a half years in the Navy, he wasn’t sure what path to follow, as the military tends “to make you dependent on them.”

And so, now living in Westmont, Ill., he enrolled in Joliet Junior College where, in an engineering graphics class he learned about a program that stood out above the many other opportunities offered to tech students, now in high demand because of a nationwide shortage.

VetTech is an internship program started in 2016 at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., to entice veterans with technical experience as a way of offsetting a generation of electrical and mechanical technicians now beginning to retire.

According to engineering physicist Aria Soha, who manages VetTech, “while scientists come up with the ideas and the engineers do the designs, it is up to technicians with the wrenches to build the circuit boards or wire the electronics” that make it all come together.

But because of a shortage in this profession, Fermilab knew in order to maintain competitiveness, it had to find a way to attract the sort of talent Davis possessed.

As it turns out, the summer months are an ideal training period as things are really hopping at Fermilab because maintenance picks up when the accelerators are shut down due to hot weather.

Four veterans enrolled at College of DuPage signed up for that 2016 inaugural program, a number that doubled in 2017 when Fermilab reached out to more schools. Those statistics paled in comparison to this year when 50 veterans applied and 12 signed on this summer. And because of this success, the lab is now reaching out to veterans organizations such as the VFW and American Legion in hopes of finding even more talent.

“Targeting veterans makes perfect sense,” said Soha, because of their military work ethic and experiences that include training under phenomenal pressure, following orders, working on major projects and being able to make field adjustments.

“We try to sell them on the fact Fermilab is such a unique place,” she said of the fact this government-funded lab must compete against private businesses for workers. “And we just hope the interesting work done here, as well as our environment, makes up for it.”

On the morning of June 5, Davis recalls entering Fermilab’s expansive campus, looking up at the towering Wilson Hall and feeling downright “intimidated.” And those butterflies didn’t go away when he and the other interns gathered on the 15th floor of the high-rise and saw a replica of the entire lab.

After all, he’d “only worked on a bunch of boats” before, and now here he was at America’s premiere national lab for particle physics and accelerator research.

“I remember thinking, what am I doing here?” he said.

Turns out, quite a bit.

Unlike the military, which Davis described as “go-go-go and not all that patient,” Soha and others at Fermilab “took their time … and were so willing to work with us,” said Davis. And before long, his apprehension was replaced by excitement as he realized “this was all new and I could learn from it.”

Indeed, his prior experience with the Navy “translated very well,” Soha said, as Davis became invaluable in his work with calibration, testing and maintaining gauges, switches and dials in the lab’s particle accelerators that are known for, as Fermilab officials describe it, “investigating the smallest things human beings have ever observed.”

“There were so many projects going on, so I tried to help wherever I could,” Davis said of the experiments that take on some of the country’s toughest scientific challenges. “I learned a lot,” particularly in the fields of chemistry and calculus which “now comes easy to me.”

According to Soha, interns this summer worked on a variety of projects, including the ICARUS detector, the world’s first large liquid-argon hunter.

“One thing,” said Soha, “when people are doing something different every day, they stay interested in their jobs.”

Because Davis had so much calibration experience, which was in short supply at Fermi, it’s no surprise he was offered full-time employment at the end of the summer. But because he wants to continue with his schooling, he accepted part-time flexible work at the lab — up to 30 hours a week — so he can pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, which according to Soha, will serve him well.

“It’s a better engineer,” she said, “who has actually built something.”

Davis agrees his training in science and innovation at Fermilab is going to give him a leg-up in whatever he pursues.

“This is a great opportunity for any other vets who are technically or mechanically inclined and willing to work hard,” he said. “There is a place for military vets on the technical side of things, if not at Fermilab than at other places as well.”

The Beacon-News is a Chicago Tribune publication.

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