U.S. shipbuilding, with its associated industries, is an important part of America’s defense. China already has the world’s largest standing army, navy, coast guard, maritime militia and missile force. Chinese shipyards crank out new ships at a breakneck pace, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy commissioning three new warships a day earlier this year — or “almost half as many as the US will induct in one year.”
While America’s shipyards need to increase production, the last straw for an industry already confronting labor shortages is the federal vaccine mandate implemented by the Biden administration. Despite the deadline being delayed and softened, shipbuilders (and other supply chain firms across the aerospace- and defense-industrial base) are still feeling the effects.
Shipbuilding has a specialized construction process that is hurt by COVID-19 and continuing resolutions, plus the resulting workforce challenges. Few tasks can be automated because of frequent touch labor requirements. Many yards and naval facilities are over half a century old, with poor layouts adding to build time.
The fragile number of sole-source suppliers requires steady work to keep employees; but contracts are rare. Many workers have security clearances that take time and investment to replace. And designated “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security during the pandemic, workers in defense, shipbuilding and aerospace were not allowed to stop coming into work.
Today, these strained workforces are near breaking point. This impacts not just employers nationwide, but those in uniform who are waiting for combat power to arrive — be it afloat, on the ground or in the air.
The administration is requiring employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022, or else they are forced to produce a negative COVID-19 test on a weekly basis. This does not help.
The Pentagon and White House should instead provide more accommodations within its vaccination mandate to support strategically relevant firms as they make efforts to retain highly skilled blue-collar workers — particularly shipbuilders and maintainers.
Staffing losses because of the pandemic have made it even more problematic for companies. In 2020, the U.S. aerospace and defense industry saw a “net loss of more than 87,000 employees,” or a 4 percent decline compared to 2019. Worse, 64 percent of those losses hit most heavily on shared supply chains comprised of “thousands of small business across the country.” Small and midsized manufacturers did not escape falling behind larger firms in efficiency and productivity.
Even before the pandemic, shipyards were relying on “excessive use of overtime” due to understaffing. A lack of workers has contributed to delayed maintenance periods across the U.S. Navy’s four public yards, ranging from 113 days for aircraft carriers to 225 days for submarines.
The vaccine mandate is poised to aggravate these labor shortages: In late September 2021, two Navy shipbuilders — Fincantieri Marinette Marine and General Dynamics Electric Boat — reported that only about half of their workforces were vaccinated, despite offers of paid time off to receive vaccinations. A month later, the largest union at Bath Iron Works reported it might lose about 30 percent of its membership as a result of the mandate.
Raytheon Technologies CEO Greg Hayes confirmed that his company will lose “several thousand” employees who are refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Back in August, Honeywell reported that company vaccination rates varied from 80 percent in some locations to just 30 percent elsewhere, eight months after the Pfizer vaccine was approved in December 2020. Northrop Grumman reported multiple protests by workers resisting the federal mandate.
Newport News Shipbuilding executive Xavier Beale warned Capitol Hill that “many regions within the U.S. … have an insufficient supply of skilled trade workers to meet … maritime industrial needs.”
Some members of Congress have also warned against the vaccine mandate: Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., noted that most of Alabama’s 5,000-plus contractors working for defense firms are employed by small firms that hire a disproportionate share of veterans. Even limited employee losses from those smaller companies would have significant impacts.
Findings in a paper assessing COVID-19’s impact confirmed that acquisition programs were also affected. From March 15 to June 20, 2020, inefficiencies in the shipbuilding sector reached 50 to 60 percent, and attendance rates ranged from 50 to 70 percent.
Now is not the time to take risky gambles with necessary workforces. The administration should institute flexible requirements for defense contractors, such as offering financial support to select companies instituting more expansive testing regimes or continuing strict social distancing policies. More exemptions for medical and religious reasons should be approved. Because these mandates affect the ability of companies to perform, Congress should support equitable adjustments for “time and cost” on defense contracts. The White House needs to select and appoint quickly a Pentagon acquisition boss to oversee the impacts of this mandate.
Why would Washington want to cede more ground to China and reinforce its quantitative military advantages further by instituting costly mandates when simpler alternatives exist?
Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.