A new re­gional cam­paign aims to help Hamp­ton Roads ramp up ship­build­ing and re­pair to sup­port ex­pan­sion to a 355-ship fleet

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Hugh Les­sig | Staff writer

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.”

Ex­panded mar­ket­ing

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.

Co­op­er­at­ing ‘fren­e­mies’

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]­ly­, @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.

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