Referred to as a time machine, Webb’s instruments use infrared vision to peer back over 13.5 billion years and view the earliest stars and galaxies.
Putting It All Together
A Firsthand Look at the Impact of Northrop Grumman’s Manufacturing Apprenticeship Program
By Matt McKinney
Five years ago, Melvin Aguirre was at a crossroads. A dog groomer by trade, he enjoyed working with his hands, preening animals prone to fidgeting and biting. At the same time, he felt an intense pull toward new challenges and meaning.
“I felt like I had hit a ceiling in my career,” said Melvin, who grew up in Lomita, California.
The son of a machinist, Melvin had always been mechanically inclined, tinkering with bicycles and skateboards and restoring vintage Ford Mustangs as he got older. But that passion had been mostly reserved for hobbies until a friend who worked at Northrop Grumman said Melvin should try his hand at machining.
The suggestion — coupled with his desire for growth — led Melvin to Northrop Grumman’s acclaimed Machining Manufacturing Apprenticeship Program, a fast-paced, collaborative education that equipped him with advanced machining skills and unlocked new horizons, including the unforgettable opportunity to contribute to NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (Webb).
Forging New Opportunities
“You can change a person’s life by getting them in the door and putting them in front of the kind of master machinists we have here,” said Deputy Manager Traci Elliott, who works closely with the program.
The best candidates are those with a willingness to learn and a knack for asking smart questions. Hobbies like fixing cars or fabricating parts tend to correlate with success. Prior careers matter less: graduates range from a former coffee shop shift supervisor to an off-road vehicle specialist.
For students, apprenticing provides access to industry skill-building, credentials and certifications, a dedicated mentor and the opportunity to “earn while they learn,” said Apprenticeship Manager Dave Ritchie. It also creates opportunities for veterans, career-changers and members of underrepresented communities.
For Northrop Grumman, training machinists internally ensures they have the skillset necessary to work on a wide array of projects and eventually coach those who follow in their footsteps, Dave said. Successful completion of the apprenticeship serves as a strong stamp of approval that they have the tools to thrive no matter the challenge.
Hitting the Ground Running
Not long after Melvin started as an apprentice, things began to click.
“I found out pretty fast that I love machining,” Melvin said. “It was like my niche. I’m just obsessed with doing this.”
His second year in the program, Melvin started working alongside one of the company’s master technicians, learning skills that even seasoned experts would envy. Such rapid strides would be impossible without experienced colleagues willing to share tricks of the trade, embodying Northrop Grumman’s commitment to shared success.
“You have to have a good attitude and want to learn,” Dave said. “People will want to help you.”
Today, Melvin takes on jobs that seldom go to early career machinists; he even made a piece for Webb, which passed rigorous inspection and is now orbiting some one million miles away from Earth.
“Earning that trust is one of the things that’s most satisfying,” he said, describing the joy of putting new skills to use. “And mentoring others is about carrying on that legacy.”
These days, Melvin has joined the ranks of his mentors, paying it forward to Northrop Grumman apprentices who are now learning the ropes just like he was when he started. That knowledge transfer is part of the higher calling he was after all along.
“It’s kind of surreal,” he said. “The awesome thing is when you get to see the person you taught becoming successful; that means I must have done something right.”