"By the time they finish in four years, they'll have 39 credits and only need 21 more — about two semesters — for an associate's degree. That's real incentive to get that degree and it ensures we have a high-quality workforce," Zerbe said.

The program costs about $100,000 annually, covering tuition and on-the-job instruction, Zerbe said. The money comes out of the shipyard's operating budget.

The apprentices say the work is varied and keeps them on their toes.

"It's not like 'Groundhog Day,' " said Chris LaPorte, 31, a welder and third-year student from Baltimore. "There's a real sense of satisfaction. The ship is all apart and you don't know how it's going to get back together, but then it gets back together and looks pristine."

Added third-year student Kenard McCoy, 21, of Baltimore: "It feels like a big responsibility, but it's a good responsibility. You know, inside, that the military can count on us."

Only a few graduates have left Curtis Bay for other shipyards.

Bloch said the pride she takes in her work has spilled over into her personal life.

"You look at every boat. I was on vacation in St. Martin and I saw a boat I worked on. You say, 'Hey, that's mine,' " she said, smiling. "You can't help but look and see if they're taking good care of what you worked on."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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