This story was updated April 25, 2023, at 7:53 p.m. EST with a statement from an Ingalls Shipbuilding spokesperson.
LOCKPORT, La. — A small houseboat floats on Bayou Lafourche in rural Louisiana, housing workers at the family-owned Bollinger Shipyards’ Lockport facility situated roughly 35 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s one of the temporary living facilities that Bollinger maintains to house nonlocal workers and spare them lengthy commutes — one of the incentives the small yard offers to lure and retain employees from a limited pool of skilled shipbuilding labor in the region. Across the street, several workers in half a dozen fabrication plants are busy welding steel, while electricians wade through a tangle of wires in assembled modules for the U.S. Coast Guard’s fast response cutters.
Bollinger employs about 3,500 people at 14 facilities scattered throughout Louisiana and Mississippi, and CEO Ben Bordelon predicts he will likely have to hire between 500 and 1,000 additional workers within the next two years, excluding subcontractors.
“Engineers right now are tough [to find], and designers,” Bordelon told Defense News in an April interview at the Lockport facility. “I hate to say just the basic stuff, but shipbuilders, welders, electricians, painters; we have a need right now for a lot of different crafts.”
The workforce shortage Bollinger faces is similar to that of other shipyards across the country. Those companies are citing labor shortfalls as one of the most significant factors hampering U.S. shipbuilding capacity, as the Navy scrambles to reach its statutorily required 355-ship fleet.
A November analysis from the Congressional Budget Office found the Navy’s plan will average between $30 billion and $33 billion in spending annually over the next 30 years.
Bollinger recently won a contract to build the Navy’s sixth berthing barge, used to temporarily house military personnel. But the competition for labor is particularly acute in the Gulf, where the company must compete with two nearby behemoths in the industry as well as a bevy of smaller shipyards and the oil and gas sectors.
The company frequently moves workers around its facilities as production needs shift. For instance, its newly acquired facility in Pascagoula, Mississippi, requires an influx of labor to build the Coast Guard’s next polar security cutter. Pascagoula is also home to Ingalls Shipbuilding, the state’s largest employer with approximately 11,500 employees.
Ingalls, whose Navy contracts include the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, is also expected to go on a hiring spree.
“Workforce development is hard stuff. However, we’re very focused on it and seeing good hiring trends,” Kimberly Aguillard, an Ingalls Shipbuilding spokesperson, told Defense News.
Ingalls Shipbuilding President Kari Wilkinson told reporters in April at the annual Sea-Air-Space conference in Maryland that the company hired “thousands of people in a normal year.”
About 45 miles away from Ingalls, Austal USA’s shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, employs nearly 3,000 people. Even as it wraps up work on assembling the Navy’s last littoral combat ship, the company is trying to increase the size of its workforce by one-third as it opens a new installation exclusively devoted to constructing submarine modules.
“We’re putting a new building in that’s going to be dedicated fully to submarine work,” Larry Ryder, Austal’s vice president for business development and external affairs, told Defense News in an April interview at the shipyard. “It’s going to be about 1,000 jobs of output, supporting the submarine-industrial base.”
The tight labor market and the new hiring efforts give workers greater leverage in salary negotiations. Data aggregated by job site Glassdoor indicates welders in the three states — Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — typically earn between $27,000 and $58,000 per year, with pay increasing for more specialized skill sets. The annual salary range for electricians in the area is $30,000 to $77,000.
Companies are getting creative with perks they offer to potential workers, and they’re investing in apprenticeship programs to build a future workforce pool meant to benefit the region’s shipbuilding industry.
For instance, Ingalls opened a Chick-fil-A in the middle of its shipyard to give employees an alternative to the relatively bland cafeteria food. Shortly after the restaurant opened, Ingalls had to remove the franchise from Google Maps after fried chicken fans unwittingly drove up to the secure yard for a meal.
Meanwhile, Austal adjusted its shift schedule so its employees work 10-hour days for four days a week. Employees have the option of a three-day weekend or working overtime on Friday. The company also runs a training academy for apprentices, as do its competitors.
“You’ve got to have good safety programs, good benefits, good training — spending money upfront on recruiting the right people,” said Bordelon, the top executive at Bollinger Shipyards. “We offer recruiting bonuses internally.”
Ingalls partners with local schools and universities to recruit unskilled apprentices at the shipyard’s Maritime Training Academy. The facility houses rooms that are each devoted to a component of the craft. In one room, some eight trainees in hard hats and goggles practiced pipefitting with an instructor.
The academy allows trainees to begin working at Ingalls while learning hands-on shipbuilding skills, first in the classroom and then on actual modules in the yard as part of a two- to three-year program. It used to train more than 1,000 students before the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which lowered that number to 400. Ingalls hopes to increase that to 800 by the end of this year, and exceed that next year.
“Ingalls hires on a scale far bigger than us,” said Ryder, the Austal vice president. “Bollinger is hiring. We’re hiring. So it’s a challenge, and we’ve got to think beyond just Mobile. We’ve got to think nationally on how do we draw people to the region.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.