Manufacturing Momentum

Learning How to Build an Aircraft…in High School

Young man with brown hair in navy polo works at a workbench.

By Caroline Mroz

Last summer, six Florida high school students accepted an internship that would teach them about responsibility, communication, safety and… building airplanes.

Let’s just say this wasn’t your typical afterschool gig.

It all started when manufacturing leaders at Northrop Grumman’s St. Augustine, Florida, site determined that the best way to meet the increasing demand for E-2D technicians was to turn to the talent in their communities, specifically to local school districts. Collaborating with Human Resources, Legal and Global Corporate Responsibility, they designed a year-long, half-day internship program targeted to high school seniors. The internship offered a path to full-time employment after graduation for successful interns — a win-win for both the students and the site, explained Mission

Assurance Manager Orv Dothage, who established the program.

A few months later, Orv and Northrop Grumman hiring managers John Herring and George Lewis pitched the internship to drafting and mechanical engineering students across several Florida counties, sharing their personal experiences of how Northrop Grumman had shaped their careers. George explained that he joined the company in 1991 as a junior electrical installer and now, 32 years later, has earned his associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees with company support. For the students, including Jared Howard, hearing George’s experience was impactful.

“They stated all the benefits — the education, the people, the mission,” said Jared, who was later selected for the internship program. “That’s what caught my eye.”

Hitting the Books — and the Shop Floor

After applying, Jared said he interviewed with the hiring managers, who asked what he did for fun when he wasn’t in school. He shared how much he enjoyed working with his hands. Similarly, other students shared hobbies like fixing cars or installing radios — all great indicators, said George and John, of interns who will enjoy the hands-on work of a technician.

However, the students knew that learning aircraft fabrication and everything that goes with it — from reading blueprints to doing shop math — would be a new challenge.

“Coming from working on something that’s already built to building it is a little bit different,” said former intern Noah Brown, who grew up working on his uncles’ tractors and trucks as well as his friends’ dirt bikes.

Fortunately, the program was designed for building these skills. Each Monday, an instructor from Northop Grumman’s Aeronautics Systems Training for Advanced Refinement program, known as ASTAR, taught the students a new skill, typically related to aircraft structure work. Later in the week, students practiced the skill, first in the lab then on the shop floor. Throughout, they had support from a cadre of mentors with a combined 238 years of experience.

Northrop Grumman Mechanics Craig Murphy and Randy White volunteered as mentors and said their time providing on-the-job training to the interns was an opportunity to reflect on their own experiences as early-career mechanics.

“Instead of being like, ‘Here’s your blueprint, here’s your workstation, go to work,’ the interns have someone to explain everything,” said Randy. “I like to lay everything out for them.”

The Proof is in the Passion

Orv said the first cohort was a home run. Half of the interns joined the company as full-time mechanics after graduation. Those who didn’t join the company said they intend to return after pursuing college or the military. The program welcomed its second cohort in November 2023, which included students from the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, and will continue to expand to other sites as the program continues. Northrop Grumman offers accommodations for interns with disabilities, such as sign language interpreters and assistive tablets for use on the shop floor, said Orv.

Program graduate and current mechanic Canyon Morris has shared his experience at his alma mater along with Noah and Jared, who also joined the company as full-time mechanics after graduation.

It’s this shared passion that has driven the program’s — and interns’ — success, said John, and you can see it on the shop floor.

“They understand the mission and they’re proud of everything they’re accomplishing,” said John.

After all, as the former interns noted, who doesn’t want to build airplanes?

Explore our Careers page to learn more about how to help us define possible, and check out what life’s like at Northrop Grumman.

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Life at Northrop Grumman

Your work at Northrop Grumman makes a difference. Whether you want to design next-generation aircraft, harness digital technologies or build spacecraft that will return humanity to the moon, you’ll contribute to technology that’s transforming the world. Check out our career opportunities to see how you can help define possible.

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