The largest yard
Newport News Shipyard steams ‘full speed ahead’
In a year when the world stood still, forcing businesses to adjust, the shipbuilding industry in Hampton Roads was told from the start to keep working.
In early spring 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic raised the question of who qualified as “essential personnel,” the U.S. Navy made one thing clear — that designation definitely included the shipbuilding industry.
“When the obstacles and the barriers started to come into play, the government told us that we would remain ‘full speed ahead,’” says Bill Crow, president of the Norfolk-based Virginia Ship Repair Association. “It didn’t end up with us asking, ‘Are we working?’ We knew we were coming to work every day — crystal clear.”
A year later, the pandemic continues to impact every facet of the U.S. economy, but Crow — whose organization coordinates resources for large and small shipyards along the mid-Atlantic — says the shipbuilding workforce in southeastern Virginia “largely stayed intact” and may have even grown a bit as the yards scrambled to keep up with demand.
The fulcrum of that workforce, as always, is the Newport News Shipbuilding yard, the state’s biggest industrial employer, with more than 20,000 workers. The yard’s biggest project remains the ongoing work on the USS John F. Kennedy, the second aircraft carrier to be built for the U.S. Navy in the new Gerald R. Ford class of nuclear-powered carriers.
Matt Needy, vice president of Navy programs for the shipyard, says the carrier is “approximately 79% complete” and is in the final testing and outfitting stages. It is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in June 2024.
The Kennedy will eventually replace the USS Nimitz, which was completed in 1975 and was the first Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. In the initial $11 billion contract, the Navy had set a two-phase schedule for the Kennedy, which would save money by assuring the two ships would not be in the fleet simultaneously. But in November, the Navy altered the contract — potentially adding $315 million to the price tag — in order to speed up the process by returning to the standard one-phase delivery schedule.
In the news release announcing the change, the Navy cited “fleet requirements and a congressional mandate of ensuring that [the Kennedy] is capable of operating and deploying Joint Strike Fighter aircraft before completing the post-shakedown availability.”
Shipyard administration has said the change was made possible — and affordable — because of lessons learned during the construction process for the USS Gerald R. Ford, commissioned in 2017.
“There were more than 60,000 lessons learned that were evaluated and applied to the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy,” says Needy. “Once we got through the first-in-class Ford-class build, we were able to more effectively group like work, such as structural units, and build them as ‘unit families,’ increasing the learning and efficiency from unit to unit.”
He also cites the ability to build bigger and better “superlifts” — smaller ship sections that are welded together and lifted as one large section — which reduced the number of necessary crane lifts by about 10%. Needy says the shipyard has been able to “push much more user-friendly and interactive digital work packages to our shipbuilders, making it more intuitive and easier for them to understand and effectively execute their work in support of these complex ships.”
At this stage of construction, the shipyard is working on the carrier’s “habitability spaces,” such as berths and mess areas. The mechanical and combat systems, including catapults and radar arrays, are also being tested.
Meanwhile, the Newport News yard is in the early stages of manufacturing the third Ford-class ship, the USS Enterprise, which Needy says will be the world’s first aircraft carrier with all-digital controls. Its keel is scheduled to be laid in 2022; the Enterprise is the first of the two-carrier, $14.9 billion contract the yard received from the Navy in 2019.
That two-ship deal — which also includes the USS Doris Miller, set to be laid down early in 2026 — serves as an insurance policy that will keep the Newport News shipyard busy for at least the next decade.
Staying on schedule
In February, the shipyard realigned its workforce, announcing 314 layoffs and 119 demotions. In a news release, shipyard president Jennifer Boykin wrote: “This is the first workforce reduction we’ve experienced in five years and comes after a thorough assessment of our business. This decision … more evenly distributes management spans and reshapes production and support ratios.”
While the construction of Ford-class carriers remains the Newport News yard’s signature role, it also continues to handle jobs such as overhauling the current Nimitz-class ships — the refueling and complex overhaul of the USS George Washington is about 85% complete, and similar work on the USS John Stennis will continue through 2024.
The shipyard also has several projects involving submarines, including the construction of 10 Virginia-class submarines through a $12.2 billion joint contract with General Dynamics Electric Boat.
Also in 2020, the Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding received its certification as a post-secondary institution and can now offer associate degree programs in applied sciences, including maritime technology with focus areas such as maintenance electrician, marine designer and nuclear test technician. Previously apprentices could earn those degrees only through local community colleges or
Early this year, Huntington Ingalls Industries — parent company of the Newport News yard — completed the first phase of its new Unmanned Systems Center of Excellence, a Hampton facility. The structure, more than 20,000 square feet, is the first of two buildings planned for a 20-acre campus and will be used to assemble hull structures for new unmanned undersea vehicles ordered by the Navy through The Boeing Co.
The campus’s primary facility, which will be 135,000 square feet, is scheduled for completion by the end of the year and will be used for the development, production and testing of unmanned systems.
The region’s smaller shipyards also remain busy, including Colonna’s Shipyard Inc. in Norfolk, which a year ago received an $800,000 grant for new welding machines through the Small Shipyard Grant Program operated by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration.
On the whole, the region’s shipbuilding industry has made it through the pandemic without too many interruptions.
Bob Boyd, vice president of strategic growth and development at Colonna’s, says the smaller yards had to “pivot quickly” in order to implement safety measures to deal with the pandemic.
“We’re ship repair companies, and you can’t do that remotely,” he says. “Our people wanted to work, and they came to work, and when some of them expressed consternation about that, we found ways to deal with it. There was some increase in absenteeism, but we were able to for the most part complete everything on schedule.”
Boyd, the president of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, credits that to a spirit of cooperation among all of the region’s shipyards, large and small. The association created an online platform to facilitate the sharing of information, ranging from effective safety protocols to the best places to find personal protective equipment and antibacterial sanitizers that were in short supply nationwide.
“In very short order, as soon as this happened, our industry became focused on taking down walls and barricades and anything that could be an obstacle,”
Boyd says. “Instead of trying to keep secret where they were getting their masks or their gloves, they posted that to each other, and we provided the platform. I think it all goes back to everyone realizing how important maritime security is, and how much that depends on our industry.”