U.S. Coast Guard Employee Went from Apprentice to Work Leader in Record Time

Boosting the readiness of its MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter fleet has been a top priority for the U.S. Coast Guard since it implemented its Medium Range Recovery Helicopter conversion project, or T-Mod Conversion, in 2007.Overhauling the Jayhawks and installing new avionics suites, that include a communications package and sensor system, will enhance the capabilities of the hard-working copters when they are deployed for search-and-rescue, law enforcement, military, and marine missions in challenging environments.

When the helicopters come to the Coast Guard’s Aviation Logistic Center in Elizabeth City for T-Mod conversion, they arrive as MH-60Js. When they leave approximately 205 days later, they are MH-60Ts.

Or as Travis James puts it, “A Jayhawk is the technological equivalency of a black-and-white television set,” he said. “When it leaves here, it’s a flat-screen LCD TV.”

James, one of two structural work leaders in the Coast Guard’s Medium Range Recovery, oversees a nine-member sheet metal crew that is responsible for stripping out the Jayhawks structure to accommodate the new high-tech electronics.

It’s a job he loves and one for which he was well-prepared, thanks to the Coast Guard’s partnership with Northeastern High School. Through an apprenticeship program, the Elizabeth City school offers qualified juniors and seniors the chance to work and train in specific career paths at participating area businesses that provide on-the-job training programs. The school’s website lauds that its apprenticeship students “train not for a job, but for a career.”

“I grew up here,” said James. “I thought I was going to enter the family construction business and build houses. Then I learned about the apprenticeship program at the base. For me, it meant job security in an industry that didn’t rely on good weather.”

In 2001, at the beginning of his senior year, he reported to the base as a sheet metal apprentice in Medium Range Recovery, where he was responsible for removing the corrosion on the Jayhawks and fabricating small structural parts. Juggling school, homework and his apprenticeship proved manageable as James kept his eye on the “big picture.” After graduation, he continued his apprenticeship while earning an associate degree in machining technology from College of the Albemarle, and in 2003 he began work full-time as a journeyman sheet metal mechanic with the Coast Guard.

James dived into the work, asking questions, learning as much as he could. In 2005 when the structural team leader position became available, he applied. Three days before his 21st birthday, he got the call for which he’d been waiting.

“The Coast Guard phoned and asked me if I’d take the job,” he said, smiling.

Fast forward to 2011. It’s a typical workday in Hangar 79, where James and his crew can be seen inside the skeletal frame of a Jayhawk as they break it down. Additional crews are working on seven other helicopters in the hanger, and the spacious work area is busy—and loud. A massive American flag that hangs from the rafters reminds the employees that their jobs are important.

“Aviation Logistics Center is the only depot for the U.S. Coast Guard, and we are responsible for 200 aircraft arriving from 26 Coast Guard air stations” explained Cmdr. Eric Carter, Medium Range Recovery Product Line Manager. “There are 41 aircraft in the fleet, and Medium Range Recovery is responsible for overhauling 8 helicopters annually on a 205-day cycle. We are really a unique place.”

With 10 years under his belt, James likes the T-Mod conversion program’s fast pace and has grown with the job, where he is responsible for training his employees, overseeing the work and laying out their daily tasks.

“The Coast Guard pays us to get these things the way they want them,” he said. “We get in, start from the bottom and work our way up. There isn’t anything on these helicopters we can’t fix, and they’ll be flying for a long time.”

Seeing the Jayhawks leave Medium Range Recovery as MH-60Ts is immensely satisfying to James—as is seeing his team members excel.

“It makes me feel good,” he said. “When I see an employee catching on, seeing my thoughts going through his hands, seeing them do the work they want to do and get promoted, that’s great. My experience happened on the job. Now, I train the apprentices.”