Yesterday, on an unusually warm December day, I attended the grand opening of the new Apprentice School building in downtown Newport News, Virginia. It was an event that made me proud to be an American, proud to be a Virginian and proud to be a veteran of the US Navy. I was a member of an audience that included local citizens, business leaders, government officials, the press, and students and alumni of The Apprentice School.
The crowd was there to commemorate a successful project to finance and construct a new, state of the art vocational educational facility. Newport News Shipbuilding founded The Apprentice School in 1919; it was fully accredited by the Council of Occupational Education in 1982. Every year, The Apprentice School graduates between 170 and 250 skilled shipbuilders from 19 different trade training programs that last either four or five years. A few special programs take as many as eight years. In early 2014, the School will pass a milestone when graduate number 10,000 completes the program.
Students at the Apprentice School are full time employees of the shipyard; their classes are “on the clock” with a starting salary of a little more than $30,000 per year. By the time that they are ready to graduate, their skills have improved to the point at which they are making close to $50,000 per year plus overtime. Typically, students will spend 2 days per week in academic or training classrooms and three days per week in the yard performing their craft while under instruction.
Some might wonder why an atomic energy-focused blog would bother to cover the opening of such a facility. I’ll point back to several recent posts where I discussed the potential for the US Navy’s nuclear power program and its suppliers to play a greater role in the commercial nuclear power industry. (Examples include: Naval Reactors should be empowered to show the way – again, Atomic Show #210 – Leadership by Navy nukes and Root cause of Naval Reactors policy of strict secrecy about nuclear propulsion plant design).
Newport News Shipbuilding is the world’s leading manufacturing facility for nuclear powered aircraft carriers and the only place in the United States that builds nuclear powered surface ships. It also builds nuclear powered submarines and services all kinds of nuclear powered ships. Quite a few of the trades and advanced programs taught at the school have direct roles in nuclear technology, including a new program whose graduates will soon qualify as shift test engineers for new nuclear power plants.
The new Apprentice School complex, unlike the existing facility, is outside of the shipyard gates and located in downtown Newport News. This makes it a more accessible place for potential students and their family members and it allows the students to become a bigger part of the community life in the city. As part of the development, there is a newly constructed apartment building with 174 units and 30,000 square feet of retail space. Anyone can seek an apartment in the building, but for students at the school it would be incredibly convenient to live next door. I toured the apartments; they are well laid out and have modern accoutrements. The building includes a common room with a pool table, a 70 inch big screen TV and a gaming console; it also includes a well-equipped fitness center.
The ceremony included a procession led by a bagpipe band, a series of speeches by the businessmen and politicians who had been involved in the project development and completion and the unveiling of a new bronze sculpture by a local artist. During the speeches I could sense the pride in accomplishment and a real sense of belonging in the crowd. The pride is justified; the construction process took just 18 months from groundbreaking on a site that was still occupied by a partially demolished building. During that time, the contractors completed a 90,000 square foot academic complex, a 380 space parking garage, 30,000 square feet of retail space and a 174 unit apartment building.
After the ceremony I spoke to Mike Petters, the CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, the company that owns the Newport News shipyard. He described the planning that goes into determining the shipyard’s work schedules which, in turn, determine the number of apprentices needed. He also told me about a recent shift in the work force to a younger, slightly less experienced group due to a large number of retirements; the school responded by training more leaders and adjusting the workforce to include a higher ratio of supervisors to workers so that quality and safety did not suffer from the reduction in work experience.
As I moved to more detailed questions about the student body and the curriculum, Mike deferred to Danny Hunley, the Vice President of Operations for Newport News Shipbuilding. Danny was the master of ceremonies for the grand opening; he has overall responsibility for the School. A major part of his role includes determining the number of openings in each trade and the overall throughput of the school. Because it takes four to five years to produce a graduate, the company needs to look out into the future to make sure that it properly loads the workforce with the correct skills.
I asked Hunley how quickly the yard could surge if there was a new demand for shipbuilding; he told me that the shipyard has recently been hiring about 2,000 skilled workers every year while the Apprentice School produces about 180 to 220 graduates. The School provides the yard with people who have been trained in industrial arts leadership skills and helps to attract people who might not otherwise consider the career opportunities that come from working in a shipyard. He also told me that the shipyard has demonstrated the ability to hire three or four hundred qualified workers in a month in order to surge when there is a new demand.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation that I thought was worth sharing widely.
Hunley: One of the things that we did about five years ago is that we reengineered all of our production and maintenance training programs around the evolution that we are seeing in workforce generations. You hear a lot of people tell you that today’s workforce is no good, these kids are gamers; they like all of that stuff. I would tell you that the generation that we’re hiring right now is probably the best generation of shipbuilders and Americans that we’ve hired in this company’s history.
Hunley: They’re different than me, a Baby Boomer. They’ve got interests that are different than mine; things motivate them differently than they do me. So what we’ve done is that we’ve reengineered psychologically our training programs to be more efficiently received and taken by them. The result – we’ve really dropped our attrition way down and we are finding some really good people. They’re doing a great job.
After I spoke with the company leaders, I joined a press tour led by Everett Jordan, the Director of Education for Newport News Shipbuilding. The tour group included Ali Rockett from the Hampton Roads Daily Press and Art Kohn of WAVY.
Everett gave us an excellent tour of the facility, showing us state-of-the-art classrooms, video teleconferencing facilities, instructor offices and, perhaps most surprisingly to me, a collegiate quality gymnasium. Though I was dimly aware of the existence of the school before my visit, I had no idea that it sponsored six division III sports teams, a drum line, a cheer team and had won national championships in baseball, wrestling and both men’s and women’s basketball. In addition to the sports teams, the school has a student government and active chapters of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.
Those activities, like similar activities at traditional colleges, give students an opportunity to practice the leadership and discipline that will serve them well in their responsible careers.
In one of the forth floor classrooms, Everett pointed out of the window and stated “If that is not an inspiring view for our apprentices, I don’t know what is.” Here is the view he was pointing to, on the left is the now decommissioned USS Enterprise, the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier in the world. On the right is the USS Gerald Ford, which will be the newest nuclear powered aircraft carrier in the world when it is completed.
The people I met during my visit are ready, willing and able to build the best ships in the world. It would be great, in my personal opinion, if those same skilled people could apply their training to the production of high quality, oil independent, emission-free commercial ships using designs that have already been thoroughly proven to be safe and potentially economical.