The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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GE-UMass Apprentices Stage Reunion More Than 50 Years Later

More than 50 years after pioneering one of the first successful industry/university educational collaborations, participants in the General Electric/UMass Amherst Apprentice Program reunited on campus over the recent Homecoming Weekend. The event was sponsored by the College of Engineering and coordinated by Donald Robinson, the director of Environmental Health and Safety at UMass Amherst and an adjunct professor in the Public Health Department. Dr. Robinson participated in the apprentice program from 1960 to 1964. Some at the reunion had not seen each other in more than 40 years, although a similar reunion happened on campus in 2003.

This joint venture between the GE operation in Pittsfield and the UMass College of Engineering in Amherst ran from 1957 to 1964.

“We each have our own stories about the Pittsfield days, and it was an important time in our lives,” said Robinson. “We are akin to the Shakers in that there are no more of us being minted.”

The apprentice program was a pioneering industry-university partnership that afforded highly qualified high school graduates a full scholarship to UMass along with practical work experience in the GE plant.

“Many of us that could not otherwise have afforded a university education are deeply indebted to GE and UMass for providing this full scholarship opportunity,” said Robinson. “I would not be in my current UMass position if it hadn’t been for GE and UMass.” 

Dean Ted Djaferis of the College of Engineering pointed out that “it was the vision of the 15th president of the University of Massachusetts, J. Paul Mather, and his counterparts at GE who established this partnership. The vision expressed by the architects of this collaboration back in the fifties was to encourage a group of young trainees toward four-year degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering. This joint venture between the GE operation in Pittsfield and the UMass College of Engineering in Amherst ran from 1957 to 1964. It clearly benefited GE as it improved its workforce, and it was also consistent with the education mission of the University. Over 60 joined the program and many completed their degrees allowing them wonderful opportunities for their careers and lives.”

The apprentice program combined on-the-job training and classroom instruction at the GE plant. A 1957 article in Popular Science magazine explained how the four-year GE apprentice program worked. Each “class” in the apprenticeship consisted of more than 100 student apprentices, who all went on the GE payroll from day one. They rotated work assignments in the machine shop, drafting room, and engineering office. In addition to a fulltime workload, each apprentice then attended nine hours of class each week, held at night and on Saturdays, as taught by faculty from UMass. It was a rigorous program with only about 35 graduating apprentices per year.

The Engineering Technician Program, one of four similar GE apprentice programs, was conducted on a college level and carried two years of credits at UMass Amherst. As a recruitment letter for the GE program stated in 1960, “We consider the General Electric Engineering Technician Program the number one opportunity for training and education at top pay.”

First-year courses in the Engineering Technician Program were chemistry, math, English, inorganic chemistry, analytic geometry, and public speaking. During the second year the apprentices took calculus, physics, and English. Third-year courses included physics, European history, advanced calculus, and electrical engineering. In the last year of the apprenticeship, participants studied statistics, electrical engineering, DC machinery, and economics.

Incidentally, every six months of the apprenticeship successful candidates got a pay raise. At the end of four years, each candidate graduated as an electrical technician with two years of college credit. Afterwards, GE would underwrite each candidate who wanted to earn a B.S. degree. In addition to the Engineering Technician Program, GE also ran similar programs for draftsmen, toolmakers, and electricians.

As the Popular Science article said, “GE boasts that more than half of the graduates of its various apprentice programs have gone up the ladder to management positions: supervisors, managers, engineers, even vice presidents.” (November 2011)