With the Navy rebuilding its fleet, maritime industry is hiring thousands
There’s massive work underway in the Hampton Roads maritime industry, with much more on the horizon. The region is hiring, big-time.
But are there enough qualified candidates to fill the jobs?
Regional leaders want to get ahead of the question, they say, considering the window of opportunity and what’s at stake for the area’s economic future.
With the U.S. Navy rebuilding its fleet to a possible 355 ships, up from about 290, there’s a 10-year backlog at Newport News Shipbuilding, which is building nine Virginia-class Block V attack submarines with General Dynamics Electric Boat, as part of a $22.2 billion contract awarded last December, the Navy’s largest-ever shipbuilding contract.
NNS has hired 11,670 workers since 2017 and plans approximately 2,500 hires this year, based on the trades and salaried openings — though hiring was put on hold this spring as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. (By early April, 13 NNS employees tested positive for the virus.)
Meanwhile, the Port of Virginia wrapped up the $320 million Virginia International Gateway terminal expansion in 2019 and is midway through its $375 million Norfolk International Terminals expansion project. To beef up its competitive advantage, it aims to be the East Coast’s deepest port, with a dredging project scheduled to be finished by 2024.
Then there’s offshore wind energy, which is working its way toward reality. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy estimates that the industry will create about 14,000 jobs in the commonwealth.
Consider that more than 6,000 separate components must be manufactured to construct an offshore wind turbine, department spokeswoman Tarah Kesterson says.
“Many of the skill sets used for building ships will be needed to build offshore wind turbines,” she says. “As the offshore wind industry grows, we want to make sure we have enough people to meet the demand of both industries.”
A long legacy
The solution isn’t as simple as hanging out a “help wanted” sign.
It’s more of a rallying cry. One set of initiatives to build workforce development efforts is the Maritime Industrial Base Ecosystem, or MIBE, a regional campaign based at Old Dominion University.
The project, which is a little more than a year old, has drawn some of the region’s employers and industry forces together to communicate, strategize, make investments and create long-term plans around the regional maritime talent pipeline and supply chain.
At its core is broadening what maritime means, says Virginia Maritime Association Executive Director David White, a member of the MIBE strategy board. People have tended to view the industry through the lens of either shipbuilding and repair, or the activities of the commercial ports. But the maritime industry encompasses those sectors and more — as well as offshore wind.
It’s also a large group of industries that includes trucking, railroads, warehouse, logistics, legal, engineering and technology firms, White says, and all will be offering employment opportunities.
The entire 757 region is driven by its position as a coastal port, says White. The VMA, formed 100 years ago, has more than 450 member companies, many of which are headquartered in Hampton Roads.
That history underscores the legacy of the maritime industry in the state — not to mention the Port of Virginia’s long history, which traces back to the historic Jamestown colony in 1607.
Such longevity and economic impact would seemingly make the region’s relevance to the maritime industry apparent. But White says more must be done to raise the profile of Hampton Roads to the industry in a significant way.
“We need to own it, claim it and let the rest of the world know that Hampton Roads is the epicenter of maritime,” White says, “if not nationally, then on the East Coast.”
Maritime is money
The maritime industry’s economic impact on Virginia includes 530,800 jobs and more than $88 billion in annual spending — a little more than 10% of Virginia’s gross state product, he says, citing a 2019 study by two William & Mary professors.
The significance isn’t lost on the state, which last year helped secure a $1.5 million U.S. Department of Defense grant for MIBE and $1.4 million for Martinsville-based GENEDGE Alliance, which assisted small defense companies with national cybersecurity compliance.
“Our collective efforts are underway to transform the maritime industrial base workforce of tomorrow,” said MIBE Chairman David Architzel, a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy, when Gov. Ralph Northam announced the grant in July 2019.
A former test pilot and commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Architzel left the Navy a little more than seven years ago. Since then, he ran marine vessel repair facility Fairlead Boatworks for a few years and also became ODU’s military affairs director in 2013.
In early March, ODU President John R. Broderick announced the university’s intention to “position ODU as an anchor institution for the region’s maritime strategic direction.”
The move coincides with a report from the university’s Economic Development Catalyst Task Force that maritime would be the focus of its work, Broderick said, pursuing “five projects related to Navy sustainment, offshore wind, resilience, targeted talent pipelines and an overall situation analysis.”
ODU is among the region’s academic resources for strengthening and shaping the workforce. Hampton Roads has eight colleges and universities, four
community colleges and five major technical schools that produced 29,000 graduates in 2016, according to the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance.
There’s also a civilian labor force in the region of 823,000 people, and other workforce training programs underway, such as those fueled by the Virginia Ship Repair Association (VSRA), which are separate from the MIBE initiative.
The VSRA’s mission includes attracting new workers and connecting its 293 member companies with training resources.
Bill Crow, VSRA president, says 2019 was “a banner year for all of our training programs.” The entry-level Marine Trade Training Program has trained more than 1,400 individuals since 2017, with a 90% hiring rate and an 88% retention rate, he says. The association’s members account for more than 60,000 jobs and a regional economic impact of $6.4 billion.
Nevertheless, Crow says, “COVID-19 has certainly impacted our training, just as it has everyone.” The association postponed classes with 10 or more students and has monitored the outbreak closely. The VSRA offers several online training programs, and Crow is working with its members to prepare for short-term import and export increases after the situation normalizes.
The big picture
Eyes also are on the 10 public school districts in Hampton Roads, where MIBE leaders hope to begin expanding on efforts to reach students in their teenage years — exposing them to trades and technologies that drive the maritime industry. This program is in the planning stages and will take a year or so to start, says Herman Shelanski, a retired Navy vice admiral and vice president of Newport News Shipbuilding. They’d come out of school with a skill set that makes them immediately employable, he adds.
Efforts can’t be simply about training young people, he says. Sustainable employment is meaningful, it speaks to the person — but if students don’t know much about a trade, or whether it exists, they may not find it.
If it’s in their backyard, there’s a better opportunity.
“We were blessed with the most incredible waterway system in the country,” Shelanski says. He describes the inlets, the Chesapeake Bay and deep-water channels that are protected from hurricanes and don’t freeze over as a natural foundation for “the place that is at the forefront of the industry.”
Like most initiatives, MIBE plans aren’t immune from the COVID-19 situation. Shelanski says the group is likely to modify or adjust its thinking in these early planning stages because of the rapidly changing headlines.
“I have to say that the surprise and the speed of this crisis have gotten in front of MIBE’s strategic plans, but clearly there will be major effects that will have to modify or adjust our thinking,” he says. “NNS is keeping in constant touch with our supply base.”
But the big picture remains — thinking about the future of the region’s maritime workforce, technology, communication and supply chain.
Shelanski envisions MIBE as a way to support the health of the supply base — the small-business partners on which the industry relies. MIBE will be exploring what they need to be more successful, and what help can be offered.
“It’s not easy for someone to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, I’m really good at making this valve, maybe I’ll try selling this to the Navy,’” he says. It’s not intuitive, and people need guidance to transition into this competitive place, he says: “We’re working on making that easier.”
As for Newport News Shipbuilding, Shelanski says, success depends on the success and growth of Hampton Roads. “If we get on this now,” he says, “this region will be the shining light in the industry.”