A new regional campaign aims to help Hampton Roads ramp up shipbuilding and repair to support expansion to a 355-ship fleet
PORTSMOUTH — Hampton Roads is already ground zero for Navy shipbuilding and ship repair, but the region must double down to support plans for a dramatic expansion of the fleet.
That’s the sense of industry leaders who have christened a new effort called “America Builds and Repairs Great Ships.”
Among its goals: attract more workers to local shipyards and supply shops, possibly from outside Virginia, train them faster and serve as a resource for developing the shipbuilding/ship repair workforce of the near future.
The impetus for the campaign is the Navy’s stated goal of a 355-ship fleet, up from its current 287 ships. But even with the wind at their backs, it will take the Navy years, perhaps decades, to reach that level.
Still, the region has the right idea,
said Vice Adm. Thomas J. Moore, who leads Naval Sea Systems Command.
“Nothing could be more important than what you’re doing today,” Moore told more than 100 industry leaders who recently christened the campaign at the Renaissance Portsmouth-Norfolk Waterfront Hotel.
At the start of World War II, it took American industry several years to ramp up production of ships, airplanes and tanks, and “we may not have that luxury today,” Moore said.
“Don’t be surprised if, at some point in the next five years or so, we’re in some sort of shooting match somewhere,” Moore said.
New ships not enough
Simply building new ships won’t satisfy the appetite of those in Congress who want a larger fleet as fast as possible. A 355-ship fleet doesn’t become reality until 2052 if the Navy relies solely on new construction.
“That’s not selling real well,” Moore said. “We need to look at the repair side of the house.”
The Navy will reach 355 ships in the 2030s by extending the life of an entire class of Arleigh Burke guidedmissile destroyers out to 45 years. Naval Station Norfolk is home to 20 of these versatile ships, which can accompany aircraft carriers on deployment or conduct independent missions.
But that still requires a boost in the workforce. The region is already recruiting workers for the ship repair industry, but more can be done, said Bill Crow, president of the Virginia Ship Repair Association.
“We do recruitment across the state and periodically bring in school systems,” he said.
In one instance, the association invited 50 students from rural Buckingham County for a closeup look at the Navy fleet. Five students were so enthralled they didn’t want to get back on the bus, he said.
Attracting those prospective workers is only the half the battle. They need fast-track training.
“We can’t wait forever to develop welders and pipe-fitters,” Crow said. “We really have to abbreviate that time.”
The America Builds and Repairs Great Ships campaign can enlarge the worker pipeline by marketing the industry outside Virginia. At the kickoff conference, an Old Dominion University official proposed doing just that.
“We have to own this industry,” said Larry “Chip” Filer, ODU associate vice president for entrepreneurship and economic development.
The unemployment rate is low and there is no prospect of a recession in the near future, Filer said.
That’s good news, but it means recruiters face a dwindling pool of workers. Filer suggested “an attraction strategy and a hard marketing strategy” to market the shipbuilding and ship repair industry outside the state.
Even then, it won’t be easy.
“If we have to go outside this region to start attracting talent to an industry like this, we’re going to face ... a tight labor market,” Filer said. “It’s a very, very strong environment right now for workers.”
David Architzel, a retired vice admiral and senior adviser to Fairlead Boat Works in Newport News, outlined several goals for the campaign.
It wants to develop the right-sized pipeline for workers, retain them, assist smaller businesses that supply the shipyards with parts and services and create a single resource for regional workforce development.
The campaign has already received a financial boost. The greater Peninsula and South Hampton Roads workforce development boards donated $150,000 to support training activity for the effort.
But with multiple businesses competing for the same dwindling pool of workers, can everyone agree to share ideas and get along?
That’s not only possible, it’s essential, said Keisha Pexton, director of training and workforce development at Newport News Shipbuilding.
“We need to find a way to work collaboratively as a region,” she said during panel discussion at the conference. “It’s about changing the face of Hampton Roads.”
She said the effort must go beyond the giant Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries and the state’s largest industrial employer.
“We, as a large company, realize that if our industrial base isn’t healthy, we are all concerned,” she said.
Crow jokingly refers to the competitive businesses as “frenemies” who realize they must pull together. As he put it, the industry has fewer chess pieces to move around the board as the Navy ramps up demand.
With 25 percent of America’s shipbuilding and ship repair capability located in Hampton Roads, the region will play a huge role in the expanded fleet.
“I love the 355-ship goal,” Crow said, “but I would tell you, we have miles to go.” Hugh Lessig, 757-247-7821, [email protected]lypress.com, @hlessig
High on Scott’s agenda is legislation to raise today’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage to $15 a hour — a proposal many Republicans have opposed. The GOP says the increase would cause small businesses to cut jobs or falter. Scott contends the tide is turning in his favor.
“AMERICA BUILDS AND REPAIRS GREAT SHIPS.” This initiative’s goals include attracting more workers to local shipyards and supply shops, possibly from outside Virginia. Above, Newport News Shipbuilding workers watch the superlift of a 726 ton lower bowsection of the carrier Kennedy in September.