NEP Apprentice Program Produces Next Generation of Engineers

Among sports-production professionals, the questions surrounding next-generation talent loom large. Who that next generation will be, where they will come from, and who will train them are questions that all demand answers. At NEP Broadcasting, they are being answered. NEP has an apprentice program that develops mobile-unit engineers by exposing them to four phases of mobile-unit production over the course of two years. With 15 graduates in seven years, the program is poised for expansion.

“The apprentice program is designed to take new graduates from colleges and trade schools and expose them to varying levels of TV technology,” explains CTO George Hoover. “We want them to learn how a truck is built, how it’s assembled, and why things are done in certain ways. Secondarily, it’s designed for us to observe the work ethic of the apprentice in unpleasant situations. You find out what their productivity is like and how they deal under the stress of hitting deadlines.”

Back to the ’80s, With a Twist
The program began seven years ago when NEP saw the need for more-qualified entry-level professionals at its shop in Pittsburgh.

“A lot of today’s road engineers learned the trade in the ’80s,” says Glen Levine, VP of mobile unit engineering and operations. “You worked in the shop, you fixed gear, and, the next thing you knew, you were a road engineer. We took that philosophy and tried to hone that into a program.”

Recruiting graduates from technical schools, electronics training schools, and four-year colleges, NEP chooses approximately four students a year, staggering them through its two-year program.

A Four-Step Program
The apprentice program consists of four phases, which vary in length according to how quickly the apprentice learns the trade. For the first month, apprentices work in the NEP Field Shop, loading and offloading equipment, barcoding equipment, and fabricating copper cable.

“We start them out in the shop, so immediately they learn about the equipment and shipping,” says Terence Brady, corporate VP of human resources. “The next phase is, they go up to UPARC [NEP’s integration facility] to work on the build or rehabilitation of trucks. There, an empty box pulls up, and they get to work on the build of a truck from start to finish, alongside people who have been doing this for years. It really opens their eyes.”

In addition to the basics of mobile-unit construction, apprentices learn to cut and terminate cables and to install and test equipment; they learn truck schematics and participate in the final testing of a mobile unit before an event. They also develop soft skills, including teamwork. The Integration phase of the program lasts approximately six months.

“After that,” says Brady, “they come to the Maintenance Department to learn repairs, so they get to test equipment, fix it, troubleshoot, and do quality control.

Adds Hoover, “You learn how a truck is wired and put together in integration, and, in maintenance, you learn about individual, discrete components. In the last phase of the program, you work on a truck as a third engineer, where you really see how it all goes together.”

The final phase of the program, which lasts three to six months, sends the apprentices out on the road with a specific mobile unit to provide preventive maintenance, troubleshoot, and repair equipment and systems on-site. That also gives the apprentices a taste of road life, which is a world away from making repairs in a shop.

Support for the Support Team
Through each phase of the program, the apprentices are given an advisor and receive plenty of feedback before graduating to the next phase.

“They get a lot of opportunity to learn more than they are expected to learn, and that’s where a lot of our stars shine,” says Human Resources Manager Nicole Letourneau. “They ask more questions and build their knowledge around things that they are not necessarily supposed to be working on, and those are the students that move faster through the program.”

Upon graduation, an apprentice can become a second or third engineer on a truck or can move into a different area of the company.

“The thing that we try to impress upon these people is that it doesn’t end with you being an EIC, although our first apprentice from seven years ago is now an EIC on a truck,” Brady says. “There are so many career opportunities here.”

NEP reaps the benefits of having younger employees around. During peak building periods, for example, instead of hiring temporary labor, the company can call on the apprentices to return to the integration facility to work on truck builds.

Also, succession planning is much easier with 22-year-old employees on hand. “Getting some young people in here allows us to do some true succession planning,” Brady explains. “Now that we’ve got somebody who’s going to be around for a long time, we can do some formal planning.”

Headhunting Talent
The most difficult part of keeping the apprentice program up and running is finding the talent to infuse into it. NEP has built relationships with some schools through attending job fairs, speaking in classes, and word of mouth, but, with a small HR staff, it has a lot of work to do.

“Finding the young talent has been the toughest thing,” Levine says. “It’s a constant battle to find somebody that has all those qualities and doesn’t want to immediately be a chief engineer or executive producer. We’re very picky, and we do lose some throughout the program. Our goal is to continue to feed the industry because, as the company grows, it’s harder to find remote engineers. We stagger their starts so we keep them running through the program.”

Some of the qualities that NEP is looking for include high energy, willingness to learn, and a thirst for knowledge, with an electronics foundation and a computer-programming background secondary.

“The one thing that we see as really key is a basic electronics course,” Brady says, “so we offer an online electronics course, built into our apprentice program, that they can take if they need the help. When we find people who are qualified, we get them here and train them, but we also try to establish a sense of loyalty.”

Room To Grow
NEP generally takes four apprentices each year, but the company would like to expand that number this year and get its NCP and NEP Screenworks divisions involved as well.

“Our next step is going to be working with some schools to develop curricula,” Brady explains. “We need to do a better job of helping people understand that this is a profession that’s out there. There are other schools that we just haven’t had a chance to tap into yet, so one of our goals for this year is to branch out a little more. Next year, we also want to have some women in this program.”