Workforce at highest level in 20 years
Deborah McDermott, Portsmouth (NH) Herald
29 March 2015
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, already the largest employer in the Seacoast, is infusing the area with millions of new dollars as it hires more than 700 workers to handle an ever-increasing demand for submarine maintenance work and to replace an aging workforce.
As the shipyard enters its 100th year of submarine work in 2015, the yard could not be busier, with two submarines currently undergoing a maintenance overhaul and a third going through the decommissioning process.
The additional workers – most of them young and starting out in their work life – are well paid. Typical pay for apprentice workers at the yard is $17.50 an hour; beginning engineers with college degrees can expect to earn $45,400.
And they are a boon to the local economy, said Doug Bates, president of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce.
“This is a great opportunity for our young people,” he said. “They can stay in their home state, get a very good paying job and be in the place they love. We can’t turn the economy around with low-paying jobs, because people can’t afford to live here. These are exactly the kinds of jobs we need.”
PNSY in 2013 had a combined civilian payroll of more than $414 million, according to the most recent shipyard economic impact report by the Seacoast Shipyard Association.
The shipyard will be hiring a total of 715 workers by Sept. 30 of this year, and has already brought on 415 people since October. The vast majority – about 470 in all when hiring is complete – will be apprentice workers. Many of the remaining workers will be skilled engineers, as well as administrative personnel.
When hiring is complete, 5,200 will work for Naval Sea Systems Command at the shipyard, supporting its submarine maintenance and availability work. (Another 800 people work at the shipyard but not for NAVSEA Command.) It’s a net gain of about 500 new jobs, said shipyard commander Capt. William Greene. About 200 workers are replacing retiring workers.
“I think we are very well positioned to be stable if not growing into the future," Greene said. "We certainly have plenty to keep 5,200 people occupied."
Paul O’Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council at the shipyard, said the growing workforce is "another shot in the arm for the Seacoast economy.”
“It’s huge," he said. "We’re infusing 715 people into our regional workforce, people who make good pay. We’re increasing our NAVSEA workforce by about 15 percent in one year. That’s unbelievable."
The new workers represent a commitment by the U.S. Navy not only to Portsmouth, but to all four public yards. During the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia will be hiring 1,500 workers; Puget Sound in Washington state, 850; and Pearl Harbor, 731, according to the Navy.
“For the Navy, one of its very top priorities is to maintain the ability for forward deployment” of its fleet, said retired Adm. Peter Daly, chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute. “I see them as committed to the path of hiring at the shipyards this fiscal year, and I predict that if there are future budget cuts, it will be a priority to defend these jobs.”
The Navy gives two primary reasons for the new hires at the four shipyards. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, said sequestration in 2013 caused a $9 billion shortfall in the Navy’s budget. One of areas that suffered as a result of those cuts were ship and aircraft maintenance – although mostly work on surface ships suffered. One casualty of those cuts, however, was USS Miami, which was set afire by a PNSY worker. It was to be repaired, but instead was mothballed due to cost.
“Shipyard maintenance work is tightly wound, complex work,” Daly said. “Right now, not all shipyards are keeping up with start dates and end dates of availabilities. They need to catch up with that.”
O’Connor said Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, however, prided itself on working through those budget cuts and getting its work out on time.
“Sure, some of that work got backed up, but we managed to plug and plod our way through that era. Every boat we had in the shipyard even then at the very least got out on time and on budget,” he said.
A big reason for that is the Structural Shop Learning Center at the yard, which simulates a real-life submarine. Apprentices train there and then go on to the actual sub after they’ve gained the skills. According to O’Connor, the center allows apprentices to get onto the subs faster, and reduces incidents of mistakes or workforce accidents on the sub itself.
“We’re training our folks up much quicker than we used to. We did it as a matter of necessity, but it works," he said. "The quicker we can get them trained, the faster we can get them out to the boats. If we didn’t do that, we’d be in a world of hurt.”
The situation is made more urgent because there are proportionally few mid-life workers at the yard due to a hiring freeze in the mid-1990s, said O’Connor, and more and more retiring workers.
Unlike in the private sector, it can take up to five years to fully train a new employee at the shipyard.
“It takes years to be totally proficient in any given trade," O'Connor said. "There’s a lot of complexity in nuclear sub repair and modernization. The demographics are such that a lot of folks are retirement eligible and we have to replace them, but we need time to train those new folks.”
Greene said the yard is expected to hire enough new workers in the future to cover those who are retiring each year and perhaps even slightly more. The yard has a full workload of scheduled work for at least the next 5 to 8 years, he said.
“What I know is that we have plenty of work to keep our folks busy for the next several years, and we’ll be hiring folks to make sure we can meet our increased workload,” he said.
Neil Rolde of York, Maine, past chairman of the Seacoast Shipyard Association, said he’s encouraged by the new jobs, saying the Navy’s decision to increase the yard’s workforce “is about as good as any commitment a governmental agency can make.”
“But it can always change," Rolde warned. "That’s why we keep the organization together. From everything we can see, things are going well at this particular point. But we’ll be forever vigilant.”