Roger Poling graduated from Laurel High School four years ago and jumped right into the job market, landing a job with the University of Maryland's physical plant department working on air conditioners and refrigerators, a field he had studied in high school.

"I like to work with my hands," Poling said. "There's a personal satisfaction in it, a feeling that you've accomplished something."

Now, under a new training program being offered this semester by the physical plant department, Poling has a chance to become a recognized craftsman in his trade. The university is making an investment in training that officials hope will help build up the core of highly trained workers.

He is one of 10 employes enrolled in the four-year training program for apprentice locksmiths and air conditioning and refrigeration workers. They will continue to work for the university on salary as they are trained and attend tuition-free classes.

While they could acquire skills through regular on-the-job training, the employes cannot become certified journeymen unless they follow a training program approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, as the physical plant's new program is, university officials said.

"It is possible for someone to work anywhere for years, and really acquire skills, but it's not documented and standardized" without federal certification, said Sandy R. Shmookler, the physical plant department's apprenticeship program director. Should graduates of the program decide to move out of this area, they always will have documentation that they were trained under a federally certified program, she said.

The University of Maryland is the only college in the region to offer the job training, officials said. It is based on programs offered at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, she said.

"It gives a lot of people a chance to learn a new skill," said John Norris, 21, an apprentice in locksmithing. "Most people start working there with hardly any experience, and just pick it up as they go along."

Physical plant director Harry Kriemelmeyer said the training is "something we can build a future on. Skilled workers are not rigorously generated any more." He said state institutions today are finding it harder to employ skilled workers because of competition from the private sector and a parental emphasis placed on high school graduates to attend college rather than entering the job market.

Kriemelmeyer said that while journeymen in the private sector earn about 10 percent more than those employed by the state, the state "catches up" with several fringe benefits and by offering workers job security. At the state level, journeymen locksmiths earn $14,462 to $18,944, while air conditioning and refrigeration workers earn $16,734 to $21,963, he said.

Officials hope to expand the program next semester to include auto mechanics, carpentry, cabinetmaking, plumbing and painting, Kriemelmeyer said.

Apprentices, in turn, are helping physical plant workers maintain campus buildings, an increasingly difficult job as air conditioning, plumbing and other equipment become more complex, Kriemelmeyer said.

The apprentices range in age from 18 to 27 and must complete 144 hours of classroom instruction and 1,600 hours of on-the-job training a year. While there are no women enrolled this semester, officials said they are planning a major advertising campaign in the coming months to draw women into the program.