A crane moves the lower stern into place on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) at Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., June 22, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo)
With a backlog of work and the promise of more to come, Newport News Shipbuilding plans to expand its workforce to about 25,000, a level not seen in at least several years, company officials said Tuesday.
The shipyard plans to create 2,000 net new jobs over about four years. To compensate for retirements and normal attrition, actual hiring will be greater than that.
Gov. Ralph Northam heralded the expansion Tuesday after taking a tour of the shipyard.
"It is just something all of us should be so proud of," he said.
Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball will lead a new partnership with the shipyard to aid in the hiring push. It will focus on promoting opportunities at the company via state agencies that deal with employment, veterans, community colleges and economic development.
Northam also announced a separate initiative, Build Virginia, aimed at expanding job opportunities and training in the shipbuilding industry, plus the construction and advanced manufacturing sectors.
The shipyard was already ramping up its workforce before Tuesday’s announcement. Earlier this year, President Jennifer Boykin said the company was hiring about 400 people per month. That rate was expected to continue through the summer, pushing the workforce to about 23,000.
The Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the state’s largest industrial employer. It is the sole manufacturer of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy and one of two yards that build nuclear-powered submarines.
Boykin said the company is seeing significant, steady growth in both aircraft carriers and submarines. Its long-term outlook is promising as the Navy prepares to expand its fleet from about 280 ships to 355, a process that will take decades to accomplish.
Starting in 2021, the Newport News yard will begin building components for a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, considered the Navy’s top priority. The new Columbia-class subs will form the undersea leg of America’s nuclear deterrent, replacing the aging Ohio-class boats.
The lead contractor on the Columbia class is General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn. Newport News and Electric Boat already build Virginia-class attack submarines in a 50-50 teaming arrangement.
Since Electric Boat will handle most of the work on Columbia class, Newport News will take on a greater role in Virginia-class production, the Navy has said.
Newport News has also been awarded maintenance jobs on older submarines. The submarines Helena, Columbus and most recently the Boise are all undergoing work at Newport News.
"With the arrival of the USS Boise last week, all of our certified dry docks are full for the first time in over a decade," Boykin said.
Officials gathered at Victory Landing Park within sight of the former USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier now retired from service. The Enterprise represents yet another line of work at Newport News.
As the shipyard builds the new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, it will inactivate older, Nimitz-class carriers.
Regional effort underway
Separate from the Build Virginia initiative that Northam announced, Boykin said the company is in the early stages of working with the Navy and local businesses on a regional effort to bolster the workforce for shipbuilding and ship repair.
That effort was discussed briefly earlier this month when Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., held a forum on how the Navy’s proposed fleet expansion would affect the workforce in Hampton Roads. Matt Needy, vice president of operations for Newport News Shipbuilding, called for industries to work together to develop a vibrant workforce for shipbuilding and ship repair.
Boykin said that cooperative approach has garnered "a tremendous amount of interest," and the shipyard is willing to share how it has worked with community colleges, workforce development centers, local governments and others to build its own employee pipeline.
"We’re trying to gather what the demand is across the region," she said.
Meanwhile, Build Virginia takes a broader view of technical or trades-related jobs. Its website, governor.virginia.gov/build, links to job opportunities across more than 25 categories, including shipfitter, rigger and sheet metal mechanic. Other links connect to training programs in a specific area of the state.
Megan Healy, chief workforce adviser to Northam, said the website should be fully up and running in a matter of weeks.
Ball, the commerce and trade secretary, said the expansion at the shipyard is something all Virginians can celebrate.
"What’s going to happen here is transformational," he said, "and we’re all very excited by it."
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