U.S. sees workforce development as critical to submarine production
Groton ― Investment in U.S. submarine production seems secure, at least for the time being, but what about the skilled workforce needed to build them?
Academics, business leaders and representatives of trade groups and local, state and federal government tackled that question here Tuesday during a workshop co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment program, or IBAS, and the U.S. Navy.
Some 90 people attended the session at the Mystic Marriott.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, the event’s keynote speaker, noted that the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill President Biden signed last month demonstrated America’s commitment to defending itself: The package included $858 billion in defense funding, including $768 million for submarine industrial base support and workforce development.
“And there’s something else going on,” Courtney said, referring to AUKUS, the 2021 security pact among the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia that could mean more work for Electric Boat.
An 18-month study of how the United States and the United Kingdom can help Australia develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines is due in March, Courtney said.
“We’ll see,” he said of what the results of the study might mean for EB and its supply chain in the region. Australia’s defense minister visited EB’s Quonset Point, R.I., facility last month.
Courtney introduced Adele Ratcliff, the IBAS director, as “the woman of the moment.”
Ratcliff said recent levels of defense funding are helping the country address the “industrial atrophy” that set in during the post-Cold War era. The critical need for workforce development was the reason she was addressing those invited to Tuesday’s event, she said. Dubbed a Submarine Workforce Development Workshop, it was the first of many IBAS plans to conduct around the country.
“We must recruit,” Ratcliff said. “And we must recruit those we may not be used to recruiting ― single moms and AAU coaches who we need to tell kids about career opportunities. We have to recruit in our communities right here. We are not moving our shipyards any time soon.”
Josh Sturgill, an officer with the Naval Sea Systems Command, said some 17,000 suppliers for submarine builders will need to hire 100,000 people over the next decade, with Connecticut and Rhode Island expected to provide a sizable share of the hirees.
Chris Jewell, chairman of the board of directors of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board and president of Collins & Jewell, a Bozrah manufacturer, described how workforce programs in the region have succeeded in preparing many high school graduates for employment at EB.
The “big challenges” in attracting and retaining workers from outside the region include finding housing and day care services for families, he said.
Paul Lavoie, the state’s chief manufacturing officer, said EB is struggling to hire the 2,000 to 3,000 additional workers it needs to deliver two Virginia-class submarines a year as well as a Columbia-class sub.
“In Connecticut, we need more people,” he said. “We need to provide child care, public transportation and housing. Affordable housing is an issue.”
Bill Louis, president of the Marine Draftsmen’s Association, Local 571 of the United Auto Workers, also said the lack of suitable housing in the area complicates hiring efforts. He said EB offers “great opportunity” and has thousands of 40-year employees among its 19,000-member workforce.
Louis said he has 33 years with the company, having started working there at the age of 20 after being laid off from a job building houses.
“The benefits are great, and you don’t have to have experience,” he said. “They train you, and you get paid while they’re training you.”