HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding is taking its recruitment efforts on the road as it looks to bring in more employees to expand its nuclear shipbuilding workforce.

The Virginia-based shipyard met its hiring goals in 2023 and is on track to meet them again in 2024, Xavier Beale, vice president of human resources at Newport News Shipbuilding, told Defense News in a May 23 interview.

The yard plans to hire 3,000 skilled tradespeople this year, but it needs to bring in 19,000 over the next decade, Beale said, adding that the existing training pipelines in the Hampton Roads region is unable to funnel enough new employees toward Newport News.

Beale said volume is only one issue when it comes to recruiting. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States in 2020, a wave of highly experienced workers retired. Replacing those master tradespeople with recent high school graduates has affected productivity.

While it’s difficult to find talent with decades of shipbuilding experience, the next best thing might be finding talent with years of experience as welders or electricians outside of the shipbuilding-industrial base, Beale said.

To that end, the shipyard is adjusting its recruiting efforts. It recently launched an initiative with North Carolina government entities to attract and train skilled trade workers who could continue to reside in North Carolina and take buses to Newport News each day. Beale said more than 1,000 North Carolina residents already work at the yard, and he sees “great untapped potential in that bordering state.”

Nationally, to reach skilled machinists, electricians, welders, pipefitters and more who have worked in sectors other than the shipbuilding-industrial base, “we’re broadening our typical recruiting area,” Beale said. “We’ve identified regions within the nation that may be ripe for harvesting talent, and we’re being intentional with our ’Build It’ campaign to reach and penetrate within those areas, specifically targeting those experienced workforce.” That campaign is meant to highlight various jobs at the yard.

Beale said his team is working on digital outreach, and also sending people across the country to connect with local workforce councils and trade associations in its aim to find experienced workers who might consider moving to Virginia to work on submarines and aircraft carriers.

The focus on hiring experienced workers is twofold. It partly involves efforts to make up for the knowledge and experience lost in the wave of retirements during the pandemic. The other part has to do with new hires without experience — those straight out of high school or coming from other industries — who tend to encounter “a bit of a culture shock” at the shipyard.

Beale said the company is doing what it can to prepare new hires for that, but attrition in the trades has been tough to bring down, especially when the culture shock combines with “the dramatic escalation of wages in the service industry post-COVID, as well as the escalation with minimum wage rates post-COVID.”

“There’s been compression in what historically has been a gap between what we can offer and what’s offered there, so that is a challenge. But we’re doing our best to navigate through that,” Beale added.

Whereas the company might spend 16 weeks training a recent high school graduate who may not stick around for long, the experienced welders and electricians need less training and for the most part understand what they’re getting themselves into.

“Even if it’s not on our platforms, or quite frankly not even our industry — if they have the aptitude and the experience, the time-to-talent acceleration is going to be much quicker than an inexperienced person,” Beale said.

That’s not to say the company has stopped trying to entice locals to join training programs and come work at the yard. In fact, Beale said, some of the U.S. Navy’s funding for the submarine-industrial base in recent years went to the Hampton Roads Workforce Council to coordinate local efforts with high schools, community colleges and trade schools to train new workers and place them in jobs at Newport News and its local suppliers.

Beale said the council over the last 18 to 24 months improved its understanding of regional labor demands, the current capacity to train new workers, and what it would take to increase that output. He said the Navy’s funds have been “instrumental in building capacity within our region.”

Still, he worries the local area can’t meet all the yard’s hiring needs as it expands from about 26,000 personnel today to more than 30,000 in the early 2030s.

“We have reached into the region quite heavily. We still know there’s some untapped potential there, especially in underserved communities and in our rural communities that we’re reaching out to more. But the broader recruitment strategy [looks] at importing more talent into our region,” he said.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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