Shipyard resembles a small city doing big things

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Print this page by Robert Powell

There is a place in Virginia populated by 21,300 people who ride around on 6,000 bicycles.

It is not a college town like Blacksburg or Harrisonburg; it is Newport News Shipbuilding.

The Newport News shipyard now is part of Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., Northrop Grumman Corp.’s former shipbuilding division. Huntington Ingalls celebrated its first anniversary as a separate, publicly traded company at the end of March by ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

The shipyard, however, has its own legacy and traditions that stretch back to its founding more than 125 years ago as Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co.

Today the shipyard is the sole designer, builder and refueler of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the U.S. and one of only two designers and builders of nuclear-powered submarines.

A recent tour of the 550-acre shipyard along a two-mile stretch of the James River made me realize that Virginia’s largest industrial employer is in many ways a small city doing big things.

Newport News Shipbuilding will have 22,000 employees by the end of the year, a number about equal to the population of Virginia cities such as Christiansburg and Hopewell. Because of retirements and normal attrition, the company expects to hire 10,000 workers over the next four years.

Like many small cities, the shipyard has strong family ties. Many of the 780 students attending the company’s Apprentice School represent the third, fourth or fifth generation of their families to work there. (By the way, 20 percent of the student body is female.)

As in many small cities, some people at the shipyard never leave. More than 720 employees have worked there more than 40 years, earning the title master shipbuilder.

The company has some quirky traditions that distinguish many small communities. The shipyard has 6,000 bicycles, but like good seats at a football stadium, you practically have to inherit a bike to use one. Our tour guide remembers having to put down $20 in collateral for the privilege of borrowing a bike.

Then there is the matter of the Huntington Memorial Rock bearing the engraved words of Collis P. Huntington,  the shipyard’s founder. The Rock is somewhat akin to the soldier’s statue found in almost every courthouse square, an object representing values and tradition that have not always been appreciated by outsiders.

The plaque on The Rock says. “We shall build good ships here; at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always good ships.” 

The Rock disappeared during the 28 years that the shipyard was a part of Tenneco, which apparently did not appreciate Huntington’s high-minded approach to profits. It reappeared in a prominent spot when the company was spun off from Tenneco in the late 1990s.

But the shipyard’s small city features are easily overshadowed by the big things it is doing.

They include construction of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford. The ship represents a new class of nuclear aircraft carriers, which will feature new technology and require fewer sailors. During our tour, employees were completing the ship’s hangar deck, which will house 85 jet fighters. The carrier is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in 2015.

Also under construction was the USS Minnesota, the latest Virginia-class submarine, considered to be the most advanced attack subs in the world. Newport News Shipbuilding works with General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., in an unusual joint venture to produce the 377-foot long subs. Newport News creates everything but the engine room and control room, which are handled by Electric Boat. The sections are ferried back and forth between the shipyards, which alternate in delivering the final product to the Navy.

Newport News officials say the arrangement has allowed each shipyard to become highly specialized in their area of responsibility, creating more efficiency and driving down the time it takes to complete each new sub. The eighth boat in the Virginia class, the USS California, was delivered in August, eight months ahead of schedule.

While aircraft carriers and submarines are being built, the shipyard also is overhauling the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Once in its 50-year lifespan, an aircraft carrier undergoes a nearly four-year overhaul that includes refueling of its two nuclear reactors. After the Theodore Roosevelt leaves the shipyard next year, the USS Abraham Lincoln will arrive for its overhaul.

In fact, the Navy recently awarded Newport News Shipbuilding nearly $392 million for the Lincoln overhaul. The money, an option under a previously awarded contract,  will be used in planning and preparations for the project. The planning work is scheduled to be finished by next February.

That means that the pace of work should continue at Newport News Shipbuilding 24/7, 365 days a year. Like the Big Apple, the shipyard is a city that never sleeps.

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