In Newport News, VA, a shipyard company is revolutionizing what it means to create a workforce pipeline.

Recently I spent the day on-site with company staff in a jaw-dropping experience, as part of my monthly Sorensen Institute Public Leaders Program.

The company, 132-year-old Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), was started by a Mr. Huntington – a train baron who saw that the ships in this Virginia port needed servicing. What started as a repair outfit has now become the ONLY shipyard in the world that builds nuclear-powered vessels. All US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines are now built here. NNS employs 39,000, of which 22,000 are here locally. There are 11,500 multi-skilled craftsman, with 1,000+ being master shipbuilders who have worked for 40+ years. 42% of the gross domestic product in the Hampton Roads area comes from U.S. Department of Defense spending.

NNS runs the Apprentice School, which was likened to the Naval Academy – a prestigious combo-training and apprentice program. Here, the 900 students annually attend FOR FREE without signed agreement that the students will remain at NNS after graduation, because NNS is so confident in the employment experience it offers that it need not bind these students in that way. NNS invests about $300,000 in each apprentice for the years of training and education – and the retention rate of graduates is 76% 10 years later.

Essentially, this is a private institution of higher education, though the School doesn’t squarely fit the traditional model of either a private nor a public institution.

In 8 years, NNS will see 40% of its current employees retire – and 60% of its current leadership. The company has filled over 5,000 positions alone this year. It is a massive operation.

But the most exciting thing is the commitment to current and future workforce development – especially for skilled workers.

In addition to the Apprentice School, it runs over a dozen different education programs, targeted as early as PreK and K-12 to create excitement for STEM, career awareness and preparation, and to destigmatizing the manufacturing industry (which, by the way, is incredibly rich with the challenges of solving complex systems around data use and integrating digitized 3-D ship building practices.) And, there are programs for career and technical education to get students directly from high school into skilled jobs – with no-cost training! Finally, NNS recruits at colleges and career fairs. A presenter said, “We have the equipment and the machinery. We just need the people into the pipeline for the jobs.”

The NNS model of investment in early exposure to STEM, opportunities for career entry at different levels, and on-going training is an astounding approach to preparing an educated workforce.

How can this model be replicated by other private industries? How can the benefits of this approach positively affect other parts of VA, including NoVA? And what makes some businesses invest in a healthy and trained workforce while achieving profit, while other businesses are focused on the most profit achievable at the top while squeezing low-paid, unskilled workers?

I learned all of this and THEN went on a bus tour of some of the 2.5 mile waterfront of the shipyard itself! The biggest machines I’ve ever seen. 16 gigantic cranes – including a new one that moves pieces weighing over 1,000 tons. I learned about the on-site wellness centers, and how changes have been made to incorporate ergonomic practices that limit workforce injuries. Just incredible.

Virginia is a diverse, fascinating state. I now understand the economic driver for this part of the state and how it immensely impacts the state as a whole, and I also have a star example of workforce development programs. It makes me even more excited to help lead policies for our county and the future workforce of Fairfax and Virginia.

All photos from the Newport News Shipbuilding website.

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