Shipbuilders Rely On Training To Fill Crafts Jobs

Susan Buchanan (taken from MarineNews July edition)
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Vocational technical students touring a Bollinger Shipyards facility in Louisiana. Courtesy of Bollinger Shipyards.

With skilled craftsmen in short supply in U.S. coastal areas, many shipbuilders turn to their own, sometimes extensive, internal training. Because fewer young people are entering shipbuilding out of high school, the industry is faced with an aging workforce that will soon have to be replaced. As good jobs for shipfitters and welders go begging, industry leaders say it's way past time to spread the word about these opportunities.


  • Huntington-Ingalls Requires Plenty of Skilled Labor

Pascagoula, Miss.-based John Lotshaw directs Operations Workforce Training and Development at Huntington-Ingalls Industries (HII). “The vessels we build are pretty large, and we need lots of skilled labor – welders, pipe fitters, and carpenters – but they're very difficult to find,” he said, adding, “Most people with strong skills already have jobs. All shipbuilders, regardless of where they are in the country, face these challenges. Most companies train their own people.”

HII designs, builds and maintains nuclear and non-nuclear ships for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and provides services for military ships. Business divisions include Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia and Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, Louisiana and California. The firm has nearly 38,000 employees.

Lotshaw said “we base our training on craft skills sets. These defined skill sets, or competencies, allow for a structured approach to the rest of training--to the development of curriculum, hands-on exercises, and assessments to ensure that students grasp the concepts being taught.”

He said “these competencies are the basis of how we assess incoming personnel to determine their qualifications and wage rates.” HII makes sure new employees meet its standards before putting them to work in operations. “We want to maintain consistent quality,” Lotshaw said. “If someone doesn't meet expectations, we ask why.”

HII has training programs for all its crafts, and employees get paid while they're being trained.  “As an example, our ship fitter training programs are three years in length, and at the end of it, you'll be making about $50,000 a year including benefits,” Lotshaw said. “In comparison, a teacher starting out makes much less and can have $80,000 in college loans.”


The company looks for a pyramid of skills. Lotshaw said “it starts with the basics: can the candidate show up on time, can we rely on them, are they drug free? Can they talk to others respectfully, can they take direction?” Those are life skills required in any business, he noted. “From there, we're concerned about whether they do basic math, read and follow written instructions.”

Lotshaw continued, saying “we have significant gaps in our educational systems today. But if you meet our basic qualifications, we’re going to want to talk to you.” He said today's young people are  strong in computers and other technology. “While entry-level craftsmen don’t spend much time on computers, as people move up the ranks, they spend more and more time on them.” Someone in a skilled trade who also knows computers is an all-around, valuable player, he said.

HII has worked with local community colleges and technical schools, advising the schools what it  expects in terms of education,” Lotshaw said. “On occasion, we've provided an instructor or other staff for these programs in their early phases. And when asked, we work with those schools to develop curriculum and standards that will help their graduates be competitive for our jobs.”

Though it is looking for workers, HII has also had layoffs. The company owns Avondale Shipyard on the Westbank of Greater New Orleans. Over 1,500 workers, or more than a third of the Avondale staff, have lost their jobs in recent years. HII spokesman Bill Glenn said all of HII's Gulf Coast shipbuilding will be consolidated in Mississippi by the end of 2013. “This very difficult decision was made to better align our industrial footprint with the Navy's 30-year plan for shipbuilding and to increase efficiencies that will make our future ships more affordable,” he said. Nevertheless, HII is working with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's administration to find other uses for the Avondale facility.


  • Training At Bollinger Covers Its Entire Business


At Bollinger Shipyards, Inc. in Lockport, La., “We provide training for a wide variety of levels of employees starting with new hires, all the way up to the executives,“ said Robert Socha, executive vice president of sales and marketing. The company's Repair/Conversion, New Construction and ancillary services groups all participate in training programs. Over one hundred areas of training at Bollinger range from respiratory protection, fatigue and fire prevention to overhead crane awareness, hazardous waste handling, oil spills and ethics. The company using its own trainers, along with third-party organizations, for staff development.


“Our training programs cover every aspect of our business, and include reminders to our employees about issues they encounter away from work, such as using cell phones when driving,” Socha said. Bollinger Shipyards is a leading builder of ocean-going double-hull barges, offshore oilfield support vessels, fast military patrol boats, tug boats, rigs, lift boats, push boats and barges. The company operates ten shipyards between New Orleans and Houston. In fact, Bollinger has the largest vessel-repair operation along the Gulf of Mexico with 28 dry-docks in Louisiana and Texas.


Skill enhancement and cross training make the company more versatile, Socha said. “The goal of our training programs is to increase employees' skills  and continue serving our customers with quality employees, so that Bollinger maintains current obligations and wins new jobs,” he said. Continuous staff improvement is key to making sure customers are satisfied.


Bollinger employees have participated in training programs sponsored by the Louisiana State Incumbent Worker Training Program, the National Shipbuilding Research Program and Gulf States Shipbuilders Consortium. “Programs at each of these organizations provide valuable, industry-specific expertise, curriculum development and  knowledge sharing, and contribute to our ability to maintain a highly skilled workforce,” Socha said.


Notably, and with the help of grants from the Louisiana State Incumbent Worker Training Program and because of its commitment to safety, environmental and skills training, Bollinger was named the Safest Shipyard in America by the Shipbuilders Council of America (SCA) for the last six years in a row. Bollinger's current headcount is 2,100 employees, and all are involved in shipbuilding.


  • Quality Shipyards Looks For Shipfitters and Welders 


Joseph Badeaux, general manager and vice president at Houma, La.-based Quality Shipyards--a subsidiary of Tidewater Inc., said "shipbuilders along the U.S. Gulf and on the East and West Coasts need more skilled people. Even though some yards are slow now, there aren't enough people to do the work. I could hire another 30 shipfitters and welders, and have been trying for six months to get them in. We have people working more than 40 hours a week, earning overtime. Quality Shipyards has 160 employees.


"We mostly hire experienced people," he said. "But it's hard to recruit and retain people. Workers will leave a job for another 25 cents an hour somewhere else. There aren't a lot of high school graduates  coming into our industry so we have an aging workforce."


Badeaux said "we haven't been allowed to hire foreign, seasonal workers under H-2B visas since 2009” by federal law. “The industry used to have an H-2B program that was good for us.”

Tidewater is currently building one boat in Houma, Badeaux said. Quality Shipyards provides new vessel construction, conversion and repair services at yards on the Intracoastal Waterway at mile marker 57 near Houma. In the 40 years since it founding, Quality has built more than 270 vessels. New Orleans based Tidewater Inc. owns and operates one of the world's biggest fleets serving offshore oil and gas.


  • National Maritime Education Council Formed

Industry leaders formed the National Marine Education Council this year. “The objective to establish a formal, maritime workforce-development system,” Badeaux said. He noted that the state of Alabama has a Marine Training Center, which opened in late 2010 in Mobile and provides resources to shipbuilders to train workers.


NMEC chairman Lotshaw said “building the educational infrastructure to support industry is very important these days. The NMEC has kicked off an effort to develop standardized definitions of craft and standardized curriculum for those crafts. The idea is to attract a broad cross section of industry to participate in what's required to train incoming craftsmen.” Lotshaw also insists, “while we have a strong nucleus, we need more participants to be successful.” The NMEC doesn't have an office yet but it's likely to be in Florida.


“We're looking at what the craft needs are, what to teach, what the complaints are,” Lotshaw said. “And we're partnering with an organization, NCCER, that has a strong track history of doing similar things in the construction industry. The goal is a strong nationwide curriculum, taught consistently, that results in credentialing of those who complete it.” The National Center for Construction Education and Research or NCCER is a foundation based in Florida.


  • Online Training Is Productive


Companies often turn to organizations for help with training. Captain Stephen Polk, director of the Center for Maritime Education at the Seamen's Church Institute in Houston, said “We've noticed a big need for companies to comply with required Occupational Safety & Health Administration training.” Instead of holding a class at an off-site location or having in-house classes or staff meetings, employees can be trained online.


“Through our web-based, e-learning programs, OSHA and maritime compliance-related training is available on the internet, allowing employees to learn online when it's convenient for them,” Polk said. “Employers can track an employee’s strengths, performance gaps and gauge whether refresher training is required. “ The Seamen's Church Institute, based in New York and New Jersey, is the nation's largest mariners’ service agency. More information on the Institute's OSHA and other training can be found at:


Polk gave another example of how computers are used in training, specifically in naval architecture, today. ”The specs of a planned vessel can be created and operated in a simulated environment in order to resolve problems or modify the results,” he said. “Additionally, you can use these models to make sure that the shipyard is capable of building that vessel.”


  • Training and Workplace Diversity


Industry leaders say they want a diverse workforce of trainable people. “At HII, we're looking for all types of folks,” Lotshaw said. “We're not concerned about whether they're male, female, or their ethnicity or age. We want the best people, who are willing to be trained, will work hard and are smart about what they do.”



Work in shipbuilding can be physically demanding. “Most of it is outside, and summers are hot on the Gulf,” Lotshaw said. “Most crafts require some physical activity, including climbing ladders. And you have to be able to carry 35 to 50 pounds.” That said, HII does hire physically challenged individuals who can do the tasks of their jobs. “All crafts are open to all,” Lotshaw said. “You just have to be able to perform.”


  • Raising Awareness About Good Shipbuilding Jobs


The nation's commercial shipyards employ more than 50,000 workers, building and maintaining non-Navy vessels, according to SCA. Add to that workers producing Navy ships, and Americans employed in shipbuilding exceed 100,000. That may sound like a lot but it's only a fraction of the country's earlier shipbuilding force, which peaked at 1.7 million  in the 1940s. Over the next decade, many thousands of craftsmen will be retiring from the industry, Lotshaw said. He added “we need to replace these people.”


The industry hasn't done a good job of getting the word out about its opportunities. “Those of us who are baby boomers have wanted our kids to go to college, and there hasn't been enough emphasis on learning skilled trades,” Lotshaw said. But shipyards have good jobs and need people. “As a journeyman, you can make $45,000 to $50,000 a year, plus benefits, and with overtime it's $60,000 to $70,000,” he said.


Shipbuilding needs craftsmen and craftsmen in turn have skills that they can always fall back on, Lotshaw said. “We will always need people who can build things.” If that sounds like a remedy for high employment, then shipbuilding might just hold part of the key to economic recovery. But before the job training can occur, the general public needs to also be educated about the career possibilities awaiting those willing and able to go out grasp the brass ring. The latter part has always been the hardest.


+ taken from MarineNews July 2012 print edition +


Susan Buchanan is a New Orleans-based business writer, specializing in energy, maritime matters, agriculture, the environment and construction. She holds a master's degree from Cornell University in agricultural economics and an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania. 

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